Fear of Strangers

Many murders show the fatal intersection of drifters, travelers, and isolation.

Posted Mar 27, 2018

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

To be wary of strangers is considered a stage of emotional development in babies at 7-10 months. It shows growing attachment to their caretakers and supports their survival. Some take longer than others to get past it, and some never do. As the latter age, their caution might deepen into dread. When I look at some of the stories I’ve written for Notorious USA, I think those who retain their wariness might have the right idea.

As I completed Heartland Horrors, which features Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, it struck me how often isolation provided a prime opportunity to kill. Sometimes, the crime scene was a wilderness area, but often it was a farm. The killer might be a handyman, caretaker, or family member gone loco. Yet it could also be a welcoming host for some unlucky traveler.

In an earlier blog, I’ve written about the “Ted Bundy of the West,” Stephen D. Richards, who’d posed as a potential caretaker in Nebraska before he slaughtered a woman and her children to grab her farm. When a neighbor came by to check on them, Richards struck again.

Not surprisingly, such fiends wandered through the Great Plains, entering homes to enrich themselves and sometimes killing everyone inside. The midnight axe murders of eight in Villisca, Iowa, is a good example. There were similar violent home invasions in Missouri, Colorado and Kansas (possibly all related to a single roaming killer). Sometimes, these drifters had specific targets, but often the attacks were random.

Think of the Clutter farm near a small town in western Kansas. One dark night in November 1959, two lowlife drifters snuck in to the house and killed four people. Their violations were depicted in detail in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Or, consider the Stock farmhouse in Nebraska where two kids from Wisconsin, high on drugs, randomly broke in and murdered the older couple.

But it’s not always about the menacing outsider. The Bender family offered food and a room to travelers in southeastern Kansas during the 1870s. They lay in wait, killing 12-20 people who sought lodging and burying their bludgeoned remains in an apple orchard.

One of the 'handyman tales' with an odd twist occurred in Iowa in 1893. Located in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Quimby, a large gray marker attests to how easily people see what we want to see.

Martin and Lena Schultz had rented an isolated farm. The closest neighbor lived a mile away. Reportedly, they’d hoarded more than $1000 in their house. On August 17, a friend noticed that they’d been scarce lately. He went over and found their bodies. Lena lay six feet from the kitchen door, her head split open with a blow so forceful it had knocked out several teeth. In a bedroom, Martin’s face and skull were mutilated with blows from a hammer. There was no money to be found.

By some accounts, the community suspected their handyman, a barely competent worker named Will Florence. They’d warned Martin not to hire him because he was odd, but Martin had needed the help. Florence fled, but he was caught in neighboring Nebraska. With no evidence against him, the sheriff let him go. But then something happened in the cemetery.

Along the side of the joint tombstone on the Shultz grave, an image began to appear. It resembled the injured faces of the victims. Some people claimed that it then evolved into the image of Will Florence (although other accounts say that it never quite solidified). Some swore this proved Florence’s involvement in the murders. Several skeptical detectives visited the cemetery and begrudgingly admitted to the resemblance. They wondered if they’d made a mistake letting him go.

The man who’d carved the stone kept trying to explain. He said the image was from rust in the marble veins, not from some supernatural force. He displayed the other half of the granite block he’d used to prove it. People ignored him. The “ghost in the granite” continued to intrigue.

This story featured more arrests, a false confession, some false accusations, and additional suspects, but the "ghost" ultimately failed to identify a killer. Still, this ambiguous image in stone did reveal how much easier it is to blame outsiders than those we know and trust for such horrific events.


Ramsland, K. (2018). Heartland Horrors. Notorious USA. www.notorioususa.com.

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