Hair neatly braided, hands serenely clasped, eyes closed, the young woman appeared to be sound asleep. But the peaceful tableau was a madman’s handiwork. Beneath the covers, her white nightgown was spattered with blood. At daybreak, a horrified family would discover her corpse tucked into their guest room. The cunning killer would strike again . . . and again . . . before vanishing into the mists of time.
A century ago, the Sleeping Beauty Murders terrified picturesque Mundy’s Landing. The victims, like the killer, were never identified. Now, on the hundredth anniversary, the Historical Society’s annual “Mundypalooza” offers a hefty reward for solving the notorious case.
Annabelle Bingham, living in one of the three Murder Houses, can’t escape the feeling that her family is being watched—and not just by news crews and amateur sleuths. She’s right. Having unearthed the startling truth behind the horrific crimes, a copycat killer is about to reenact them—beneath the mansard roof of Annabelle’s dream home…
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Mundy’s Landing, New York
Here we are,” the Realtor, Lynda Carlotta, announces as she slows the car in front of 46 Bridge Street. “It really is magnificent, isn’t it?”
The Second Empire Victorian presides over neighboring stucco bungalows and pastel Queen Anne cottages with the aplomb of a grand dame crashing a coffee klatch. There’s a full third story tucked behind the scalloped slate shingles, topped by a black iron grillwork crown. A square cupola rises to a lofty crest against the gloomy Sunday morning sky. Twin cornices perch atop its paired windows like the meticulously arched, perpetually raised eyebrows of a proper aristocratic lady.
Fittingly, the house—rather, the events that transpired within its plaster walls—raised many an eyebrow a hundred years ago.
Annabelle Bingham grew up right around the corner, but she stares from the leather passenger’s seat as if seeing the house for the first time. She’d never imagined that she might actually live beneath that mansard roof, in the shadow of the century-old unsolved crimes that unfolded there.
For the past few days, she and her husband, Trib, have taken turns talking each other into—and out of—coming to see this place. They’re running out of options.
Real estate values have soared in this picturesque village, perched on the eastern bank of the Hudson River midway between New York City and Albany. The Binghams’ income has done quite the opposite. The only homes in their price range are small, undesirable fixer-uppers off the highway. They visited seven such properties yesterday and another this morning, a forlorn little seventies ranch that smelled of must and mothballs. Eau d’old man, according to Trib.
“Magnificent isn’t exactly the word that springs to mind when I look at this house,” he tells Lynda from the backseat.
She smiles at him in the rearview mirror. “Well, I’m not the professional wordsmith you are. I’m sure you can come up with a more creative adjective.”
Annabelle can. She’s been trying to keep it out of her head, but everything—even the tolling steeple bells from nearby Holy Angels Church—is a grim reminder.
“Monolithic,” pronounces the backseat wordsmith. “That’s one way to describe it.”
Murder House, Annabelle thinks. That’s another.
“There’s certainly plenty of room for a large family,” Lynda points out cheerily.
Optimism might be her strong suit, but tact is not. Doesn’t she realize there are plenty of families that don’t care to grow larger? And there are many that, for one heartbreaking reason or another, couldn’t expand even if they wanted to; and still others, like the Binghams, whose numbers are sadly dwindling.
Annabelle was an only child, as is their son, Oliver. Trib lost his older brother in a tragic accident when they were kids. Until a few months ago, Trib’s father, the last of their four parents to pass away, had been a vital part of their lives. He’d left them the small inheritance they plan to use as a down payment on a home of their own—a bittersweet prospect for all of them.
“I just want Grandpa Charlie back,” Oliver said tearfully last night. “I’d rather have him than a new house.”
“We all would, sweetheart. But you know he can’t come back, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice big bedroom and live on a street with sidewalks and other kids?”
“No,” Oliver said, predictably. “I like it here.”
They’re living in what had once been the gardener’s cottage on a grand Hudson River estate out on Battlefield Road. The grounds are lovely but isolated, and they’ve long since outgrown the tiny rental space.
Still . . . are they really prepared to go from dollhouse to mansion?
“There are fourteen rooms,” Lynda waxes on, “including the third-floor ballroom, observatory, and servants’ quarters. Over thirty-five hundred square feet of living space—although I have to check the listing sheet, so don’t quote me on it.”
That, Annabelle has noticed, is one of her favorite catchphrases. Don’t quote me on it.
“Is she saying it because you’re a reporter?” she’d asked Trib after their first outing with Lynda. “Does she think you’re working on an article that’s going to blow the lid off . . . I don’t know, sump pump function?”
He laughed. “That’s headline fodder if I ever heard it.”
Lynda starts to pull the Lexus into the rutted driveway. After a few bumps, she thinks better of it and backs out onto the street. “Let’s start out front so that we can get the full curb appeal, shall we?”
“Would you mind handing me that file folder on the floor back there, Charles?” Lynda asks Trib, whose lanky form is folded into the seat behind her.
He’d been born Charles Bingham IV, but as one of several Charlies in kindergarten, was rechristened courtesy of his family’s longtime ownership of the Mundy’s Landing
Tribune. The childhood nickname stuck with him and proved prophetic: he took over as editor and publisher after his dad retired a decade ago.
But Lynda wouldn’t know that. She’s relatively new in town, having arrived sometime in the last decade. Nor would she remember the era when the grand homes in The Heights had fallen into shabby disrepair and shuttered nineteenth-century storefronts lined the Common. She’d missed the dawning renaissance as they reopened, one by one, to form the bustling business district that exists today.
“Let’s see . . . I was wrong,” she says, consulting the file Trib passes to the front seat. “The house is only thirty-three hundred square feet.”
Can we quote you on it? Annabelle wants to ask.
“I can’t imagine what it cost to heat this place last winter,” Trib comments, “with all those below-zero days we had.”
“You’ll see here that there’s a fairly new furnace.” Lynda hands them each a sheet of paper. “Much more energy efficient than you’ll find in most old houses in the neighborhood.”
Annabelle holds the paper at arm’s length—courtesy of advancing farsightedness—and looks over the list of specs. The “new” furnace was installed about fifteen years ago, around the turn of this century. The wiring and plumbing most likely date to the turn of the last one.
“Oh, and did I mention that this is the only privately owned indoor pool in town.”
She did, several times. Some potential buyers might view that as a burden, but Lynda is well aware that it’s a luxury for Annabelle, an avid swimmer.
Still, the house lacks plenty of key items on her wish list. There’s a ramshackle detached garage instead of the two-car garage she and Trib covet. There is no master suite. The lot is undersized, like many in this historic neighborhood.
“You’re never going to find exactly what you want,” Lynda has been reminding her and Trib from day one. “You have to compromise.”
They want a home that’s not too big, not too small, not too old, not too new, not too expensive, not a rock-bottom fixer-upper . . .
Goldilocks syndrome—another of Lynda’s catchphrases.
This house may be too old and too big, but it isn’t too expensive despite being located in The Heights, a sloping tree-lined enclave adjacent to the Village Common.
Its owner, Augusta Purcell, died over a year ago, reportedly in the same room where she’d been born back in 1910. Her sole heir, her nephew Lester, could have sold it to the historical society for well above market value. But he refused to entertain a long-standing preemptive offer from the curator, Ora Abrams.
“I’m not going to cash in on a tragedy like everyone else around here,” he grumbled, adamantly opposed to having his ancestral home exploited for its role in the notorious, unsolved Sleeping Beauty case.
From late June through mid July of 1916, a series of grisly crimes unfurled in the relentless glare of both a brutal heat wave and the Sestercentennial Celebration for the village, founded in 1666.
Forty-six Bridge Street was the second home to gain notoriety as a crime scene. The first was a gambrel-roofed fieldstone Dutch manor house just around the corner at 65 Prospect Street; the third, a granite Beaux Arts mansion at 19 Schuyler Place.
No actual homicide took place inside any of the three so-called Murder Houses. But what had happened was profoundly disturbing. Several days and several blocks apart, three local families awakened to find the corpse of a young female stranger tucked into a spare bed under their roof.
The bodies were all posed exactly the same way: lying on their backs beneath coverlets that were neatly folded back beneath their arms. Their hands were peacefully clasped on top of the folded part of the covers. Their long hair—they all had long hair—was braided and arranged just so upon the pillows.
All the girls’ throats had been neatly slit ear to ear. Beneath each pillow was a note penned on plain stationery in block lettering: Sleep safe till tomorrow. The line was taken from a William Carlos Williams poem published three years earlier.
The victims hadn’t died where they lay, nor in the immediate vicinity. They’d been stealthily transported by someone who was never caught; someone who was never identified and whose motive remains utterly inexplicable to this day.
Ghastly death portraits were printed in newspapers across the country in the futile hope that someone might recognize a sister, a daughter, a niece. In the end, their unidentified remains were buried in the graveyard behind Holy Angels Church.
Is Annabelle really willing to move into a Murder House?
A year ago, she’d have said no way. This morning, when she and Trib and Oliver were crashing into porcelain fixtures and one another in their tiny bathroom, she’d have said yes, absolutely.
Now, staring up at the lofty bracketed eaves, ornately carved balustrades, and curve-topped couplets of tall, narrow windows, all framed against a blood red foliage canopy of an oppressive sky . . .
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
“Since you both grew up here, I don’t have to tell you about how wonderful this neighborhood is,” Lynda says as the three of them step out of the car and approach the tall black iron fence that mirrors the mansard crest.
A brisk wind stirs overhead boughs. They creak and groan, as does the gate when Lynda pushes it open. The sound is straight out of a horror movie. A chill slips down Annabelle’s spine, and she shoves her hands deep into the pockets of her corduroy barn coat.
The brick walkway between the gate and the house is strewn with damp fallen leaves. For all she knows, someone raked just yesterday. It is that time of year, and an overnight storm brought down a fresh barrage of past-peak foliage.
Yet the grounds exude the same forlorn, abandoned atmosphere as the house itself. It’s the only one on the block that lacks pumpkins on the porch steps and political signs posted in the yard.
Election Day looms, with a heated mayoral race that reflects the pervasive insider versus outsider mentality. Most residents of The Heights back the incumbent, John Elsworth Ransom, whose roots extend to the first settlers of Mundy’s Landing. Support for his opponent, a real estate developer named Dean Cochran, is stronger on the other side of town, particularly in Mundy Estates, the upscale townhouse complex he built and now calls home.
A Ransom for Mayor poster isn’t all that’s conspicuously missing from the leaf-blanketed yard. There’s no For Sale sign, either.
Trib asks Lynda if she’s sure it’s on the market.
“Oh, it is. But Lester prefers to avoid actively soliciting the ‘ghouls’—not the Halloween kind, if you know what I mean.”
They do. Plenty of locals use that word to describe the tourists who visit every summer in an effort to solve the cold case. The event—colloquially dubbed Mundypalooza—has taken place every year since 1991. That’s when, in conjunction with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the cold case, the historical society first extended a public invitation: Can You Solve the Sleeping Beauty Murders?
So far, no one has—but every summer, more and more people descend to try their hand at it. The historical society sponsors daily speakers, panel discussions, and workshops. Even Trib conducts an annual seminar about the sensational press coverage the case received in 1916.
He turns to Annabelle. “That’s something we’d have to deal with if we bought this place.”
“You’re right. We’d be inundated with curiosity seekers. I don’t think I want to—”
“Just in the summer, though,” Lynda cuts in quickly, “and even then, it’s not a big deal.”
“This house will be crawling with people and press,” Annabelle points out.
After all, a Murder House isn’t just branded by century-old stigma; it bears the brunt of the yearly gawker invasion. No local resident escapes unscathed, but those who live at 46 Bridge Street, 65 Prospect Street, and 19 Schuyler Place are inundated.
“Let’s just walk through before you rule it out,” Lynda urges. “A comparable house at any other address in this neighborhood would sell for at least six figures more. I’d hate to have someone snatch this out from under you.”
The odds of that happening are slim to none. Lester, who insists on pre-approving every showing, requests that prospective buyers already live locally. Not many people fit the bill, but Annabelle and Trib passed muster and they’re here. They might as well look, even though Annabelle is sure she doesn’t want to live here after all. She’d never get past what happened here during the summer of 1916, let alone what will happen every summer forever after, thanks to Mundypalooza.
They step through the massive double doors into the dim, chilly entrance hall. So far, so not good.
Before Annabelle can announce that she’s changed her mind, Lynda presses an antique mother-of-pearl button on the wall. “There, that’s better, isn’t it?”
They find themselves bathed in the glow of an elegant fixture suspended from a plaster medallion high overhead. Surprisingly, it is better.
There’s a massive mirror on the wall opposite the door. In it, Annabelle sees their reflection: Lynda, a full head shorter even in heels, bookended by herself and Trib, who could pass for siblings. They’re similarly tall and lean, with almost the same shade of dark brown hair and light brown eyes—both attractive, if not in a head-turning way.
Their eyes meet in the mirror, and he gives her a slight nod, as if to say, Yes, let’s keep going.
“Just look at that mosaic tile floor!” Lynda exclaims. “And the moldings on those archways! And the woodwork on the grand staircase! We haven’t seen anything like this in any of the houses we’ve looked at, have we?”
They agree that they haven’t, and of course wouldn’t expect to in their price point.
Annabelle can picture twelve-year-old Oliver walking through those big doors after school, dropping his backpack on the built-in seat above the cast-iron radiator with a Mom? I’m home. As she runs her fingertips over the carved newel post, she envisions him sliding down the banister curving above.
The long-dormant old house stirs to life as they move through it. One by one, doors creak open. Spaces beyond brighten courtesy of wall switches that aren’t dime-a-dozen rectangular plastic levers. These are period contraptions with buttons or brass toggles or pull-pendants dangling from thirteen-foot ceilings. Lynda presses, turns, pulls them all, chasing shadows from the rooms.
Annabelle’s imagination strips away layers of faded velvet and brocade shrouding the tall windows. Her mind’s eye replaces Augusta’s dark, dusty furnishings with comfortable upholstery and modern electronics. Instead of mustiness and cat pee, she smells furniture polish, clean linens, savory supper on the stove. The ticking grandfather clock, dripping faucets, and Lynda’s chirpy monologue and tapping footsteps are overshadowed by the voices Annabelle loves best, echoing through the rooms in ordinary conversation: Mom, I’m home! What’s for dinner? I’m home! How was your day? I’m home . . .
Yes, Annabelle realizes. This is it.
This, at last, is home.
USA Today and New York Times bestseller Wendy Corsi Staub is the award-winning author of more than seventy novels and has twice been nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She lives in the New York City suburbs with her husband and their two children.