August 8, 1886: The Mysterious, Unsolved "Shoe Box" Murders


On August 8, 1886, a man named Edward Terrill was on a walk through a farming district in New Haven Connecticut with his dog, when he stumbled upon a box of about a dozen shoes that had recently fell out of a cart. The box, about 30 inches long and 12 inches wide, was resting under some bushes.

When he opened the box, he made a horrifying discovery: the remains of a man wrapped in paper. But not all of the man. His arms, legs, and head were missing.

Upon the discovery, the terrifying story became public as residents began speculating about who the man could have been. Authorities initially believed it was Albert J. Cooley who had gone missing earlier in the year, but he eventually turned up alive. Then, they believed it could have belonged to a man who had been setting fires around town in the previous weeks.

A medical examination determined the man was 20-40 years old and had died 5-10 days before the body was discovered. The medical examiner found arsenic in his stomach, determining the cause of death to be poison.


Because the story was already so sensational, it was easy for the media to further sensationalize the story and share unconfirmed stories. One story reported that some residents could a bag in the bottom of a well, but when they went to find some materials to remove the bag, they returned to find it missing, but a human scalp in its place. This led to people speculating that the murderer had been hiding in the well.

However, in September of 1886, the police found 2 human arms and legs near the scene that were wrapped in similar paper to the torso.

The police began to trace the shoe box to start to put together some clues. It was traced to a factory in Fall River, Massachusetts (yes, this is the same city that yesterday's story was in). In Fall River, the box was filled with shoes and sent to Chicago who passed it along to a local retailer. That retailer emptied the box to sell the shoes and threw it in the store's backyard before it was sold to a man who later disappeared.

The location led some to believe that the remains may have been from an instigator in the Haymarket Square Riot. The riot was the aftermath of a bombing at a labor demonstration in May of 1886, which began as a peaceful rally in support of a worker's strike and ended with a dynamite bomb thrown at police and various other deaths. Investigators believed the deceased may have been someone involved who's cohorts needed him silenced, but this lead eventually went cold.

One woman came forward to the police and told them that a bearded stranger had appeared at her door in a blood-stained shirt with a bag asking her for directions to a pond. She said later she saw the same man pass back through town in clean clothes without the bag, but later recanted this story.

Investigators detained a sex worker named Mabel Preston, believing she knew the whole story behind the murder (though it does not say why they believed this), however she claimed to know nothing during questioning. 2 years after the body was discovered, she committed suicide.

To this day, the Shoe Box Murder remains unsolved - both the killer and the victim have yet to be identified. His head was never found.

I get frustrated by, but also very fascinated by, unsolved murders. I love reading theories and digging into what may have happened to someone. In most unsolved mysteries, there are at least a few theories that rise to the top of what may have happened. In many, there is one theory everyone universally agrees on, but has never been proved. As a true-crime community, we love unsolved mysteries. TV shows and books and magazines and subreddits are all dedicated to such mysteries.

But a mystery where nobody knows who did it and has no idea who it was done to? Not a single theory can rise above another one. You can't even determine where the man was from. Was he put in the box in Chicago, or in Connecticut where he died? You don't know his enemies, his life, what was going well or what was going wrong, his friends, his wealth, anything. Because you don't know who it is. It is kind of similar to the super mysterious Taman Shud case which I will cover in December - a completely mysterious story with no leads, because it is more than not knowing the killer: it is not knowing the victim.

There have been a few cases I've written about this year that someone had been killed and buried, only to be identified years and years later. This isn't an 1800s thing - this still happens. Even with all of the forensic science we have, someone can still be killed and not be identified for years.

Whoever the person in the Shoe Box was, I feel terrible for what happened, but also that he was buried alone, with none of his loved ones there, without them ever even knowing what became of him. An unmarked grave is so very sad. I hope he was able to reunite with those he loved in the afterlife, after his life ended in such a mysterious and sad way.




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