SOMETIMES THE TREASURES you come upon are quite interesting. A while back, I was looking through an old box of papers belonging to Dr. Harlan McNutt. I found letters from his mother. I found notes from medical school. I found invoices and receipts. It was a collection of routine life for him while he was away at medical school.
Then I came upon hand-written notes on yellow tablet paper. The first words were, “Examination of the body found floating in Lake Crescent off Rocky Point.” I had found old notes about the “Lady of the Lake.”
Locally, we know of the “Lady of the Lake” as the greatest murder mystery in Clallam County. A person was murdered, their body was wrapped in blankets, bound with rope and dumped into the depths of Lake Crescent. The murderer surely believed the body would vanish and his crime would go undetected. But not so!
It was July 6th, 1940, and fishermen Louis Ross and his brother noticed a body floating in the water on Lake Crescent. They snagged it with some fishing line and towed it to shore. They contacted A. F. Immenroth, the superintendent of the trout hatchery. Immenroth notified the sheriff’s office and so began a murder mystery.
Ralph Smythe was Clallam County’s Prosecuting Attorney. As Prosecuting Attorney, he also acted as the county coroner. The coroner takes charge of dead bodies when either the identity is unknown, or the cause of death is suspicious. Both were true here.
In the summer of 1940, Harlan McNutt was home after his first year of medical school. He was home and it was a beautiful summer evening. But the pleasant evening was interrupted by two important County officials.
Harlan’s friend, the Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney, and Sheriff Charlie Kemp asked him to examine a body that had just been found. Harlan went in town with the men. Happenstance placed Harlan right in the middle of Clallam County lore.
Why would they ask Harlan to help? The County Doctor, Irving. E. Kaveney, was scheduled to perform an emergency appendectomy that evening, and he did not want to go near the body for fear of contamination.
The body was at Christman Mortuary, which was at 6th and Peabody Streets.
The body, which was in a large wicker basket, was put in the woodshed behind the mortuary. The condition of the body was so unusual that the mortuary would not take the body. Therefore, the body was examined in the woodshed.
The examination was observed by Harlan McNutt, County Doctor, County Prosecuting Attorney, County Sheriff, Mortician Frank Christman, a reporter, and photographer R. T. King.
At first glance, the body appeared to be rounded lump of something unidentifiable wrapped in tattered blankets and old rope.
The first year of medical school was filled with anatomy lessons and work in cadaver labs. So, Harlan was not at all squeamish around a dead body. In fact, Harlan knew that the unusual circumstances would only enhance his education.
A sheet was laid out on the floor and the body was removed from the basket. Harlan put on medical gloves and began the examination.
He began by unwrapping the body very carefully. Every piece of fabric and every knot in the ropes had to be examined and photographed.
After he had removed the blanket wrapped around the body, it was clear it was in a peculiar condition not often seen. It was also clear this was a woman’s body. The flesh was a waxy consistence, much like soap. The ropes, a belt and garters had made deep impressions in the flesh. Surprisingly, the body had no odor of decaying flesh. This condition is known as adipocere. The process is also called saponification. I will let you look those up yourself.
Some extremities and the top of the head had been exposed directly to the elements. The fingers and toes were gone, so fingerprints could not be used to identify the body. The flesh was gone from the front of the skull. The remainder of the skull had short brown hair. A vaccination mark was evident on the left arm. Otherwise, there were no identifying marks.
There was some discoloration around the neck. It could not be determined if this woman had been strangled or if the discoloration was from the rope.
Sheriff Kemp had a habit of carrying a toothpick around in his mouth all the time. There were a couple of holes in the body. He got down on his knees and poked the holes with his toothpick to see if they were bullet holes. They were not. Kemp proceeded to put the toothpick right back into his mouth. No bullet holes or stab wounds were found.
So far, they had no way of identifying the body. The next thing was to check the teeth. The teeth were another way to identify human remains.
Examination of the teeth would be difficult since the body had hardened to a soap-like consistency. Sheriff Kemp stepped in and said, “I’ll open her.” Harlan was flabbergasted when Sheriff Kemp grabbed a kindling stick, stuck it into her mouth, and pried. The whole jaw came off. This certainly was a back-woods crime lab. But they found a peculiar six-tooth upper plate in her mouth.
The examination lasted about two hours. At this point, officials did not know what to do with her body, so she was buried in the potter’s field at Ocean View Cemetery.
The body was exhumed on Thursday, July 11th. State Detective Hollis B. Fultz wanted tissue samples for testing. Harlan and Dr. Donald Black supervised the exhumation and performed an examination of internal organs, muscles, and bones. The condition of the body was essentially the same except for some darkening. Also, the odor of decomposition was more evident. They removed portions of the stomach, uterus, and lungs.
Detective Fultz took the samples to the Olympia crime lab to see if death was due to poisoning. The body was reburied in the potter’s field. In January 1942, the body was interred at Park Hill Cemetery in Vancouver.
Identifying these remains would take some time. The dental plate appeared to be the only tangible clue officials had.
The story continues next month.
John McNutt is a descendant of Clallam County pioneers and treasurer of the North Olympic History Center Board of Directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John’s Clallam history column appears the first Saturday of every month.