August 8: The Shoe Box Murder of 1886



On this day in 1886, three men on a logging road near Wallingford noticed a large wooden shoe box nestled under some bushes and unwittingly breaking open one of the strangest and most gruesome murder mysteries in Connecticut history.

Joseph Samson, Edward Terrill and Joseph Terrill first noticed the box, about 30 inches long and foot wide, after Edward Terrill’s dog sniffed it out while ambling ahead of the men on a dirt road.  Figuring the box must have fallen off a cart, the men opened the box to find what they originally thought were the remains of a dead, tortured animal, only to soon realize they were looking at a headless, limbless torso of a man that had been stuffed inside the tarpaper-lined shoe box.

The gruesome murder mystery quickly captured the nation’s attention, generating sensational headlines across the country.  The New York Times ran a front-page article that breathlessly characterized the discovery as “one of the most brutal [tragedies] in the criminal annals of the State.”  The state medical examiner determined that the victim had been dead for five to ten days by the time the shoe box was found; he also found a large quantity of arsenic in the victim’s stomach that suggested he was likely poisoned to death.

Over the next few weeks, police also discovered two arms and two legs that had also been wrapped in tarpaper near the site where the original shoe box had been found, but contemporary forensics were unable to confirm that they all belonged to the same person.  In spite of all the national attention the case attracted, no tangible leads ever surfaced regarding the identity of the victim or perpetrator, though theories were in plentiful supply.  Citing a recent string of destructive fires in the area, some believed the victim was an arsonist who was murdered by his accomplices, while others theorized the shoe boxes were an elaborate prank orchestrated by college boys who had easy access to medical cadavers.  A handful of people, including a local woman by the name of Mabel Gage, claimed to know the story behind the murder, but Gage changed her tune and claimed to know nothing while under oath. To this day, over 130 years later, the shoe box murder of Wallingford remains one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Gregg Mangan, “‘A Headless Body Packed In A Box’: Victim Of Unsolved 1886 Murder Discovered In WallingfordHartford Courant