The story so far: The gruesome discovery of a murdered girl’s skeleton in a cellar grave inside a Harrisburg row home triggers an exhaustive investigation in 1915. Yet, the young victim is never identified and her killer eludes authorities. Now, 106 years later, it’s the coldest of cold cases. But one amateur sleuth believes she’s close to solving it. Read Part One and Part Two.
As Carrie Donaldson walks down Harrisburg’s South 14th Street, it’s as if she’s venturing back through time, traveling more than a century into the city’s past.
What’s changed here?
In 1915, Allison Hill was a new, upscale Harrisburg neighborhood of recently built row homes that seemed so remote from downtown, it was considered a suburb. These days, decades of decay are evident, along with a few green sprouts of transition.
As 40-year-old Carrie walks with her husband, Bob, she steps carefully to avoid uneven cracks in the sidewalk, piles of garbage, and a sodden mattress and box spring left to molder on the concrete.
She passes a boarded-up home with a huge hole punched through its red bricks. One can peer right into the vacant, desiccated living room.
Nearby is a makeshift memorial of dusty plastic flowers, burned-out prayer candles and notes of grief and loss, long faded to the sun. It’s a reminder that deadly violence is all too common on today’s Allison Hill.
Homicides in Harrisburg no longer have the power to shock.
This is in stark contrast to 1915, when the discovery of a murdered girl’s bones in a row home basement just a few doors down ignited the fears and fury of an entire city.
Carrie comes to it then.
Her steps slow, then stop. Her neck cranes, head tilting skyward, eyes scanning the unmistakable architectural features of the 1892 row house.
The dwelling rises three stories on the first block of South 14th Street – a prominent portal to the past.
“It’s still got the fancy architecture,” Carrie says, in a voice hushed by awe.
It’s as if 106 years fall away in an instant.
The basement window of the row home in Allison Hill where an unknown woman’s body was found buried in 1915. Sean Simmers |email@example.com
Carrie has been investigating the cold case of the girl found buried in the house’s cellar via the Internet for years. Now, she peeks into its windows as if expecting to catch a glimpse of the girl peering out at her.
Questions that have long driven the genealogy buff-turned-desktop detective rush to her mind.
She bends down to inspect the cellar windows and look into the basement, where it all happened more than a century before. Alas, the windows guarded by wrought iron and blacked out to prevent snooping — as if protecting terrible secrets.
She takes in everything, then the realization hits her: It’s all here.
Whatever happened 106 years ago — whoever brought the teen girl to this house and whatever provoked the violence that culminated in someone swinging a hatchet into her face — those echoes are still here.
The house is the physical manifestation of a case that until now, Carrie, mother of a 13-month-old girl living in Newark, Del., has investigated only online.
Now, standing before what the press in 1915 dubbed the “Murder House,” she’s closer than ever to its secrets — and, perhaps, to answers that have eluded authorities for 106 years.
The questions have haunted Carrie Donaldson since she stumbled onto old news stories about the ‘Murder House in’ 2017. She’s been obsessed with finding the answers: Who was the girl? Who crushed the left side of her face and skull with a hatchet — and why?
“Not much has changed,” Carrie says, her widened eyes locked on features of the house.
“I’m looking at the house and wondering: Maybe it all happened in that room, in that room. Maybe it happened in the living room.”
She points at the house’s curtained windows.
“I can look up and think, did she look out those windows? Was she here for a while? What brought her here? Who brought her here?”
Such questions have haunted Carrie since she stumbled onto old news stories about the “Murder House” in 2017. She’s been obsessed with finding the answers: Who was the girl? Who crushed the left side of her face and skull with a hatchet – and why?
“Somewhere in that house, there has got to be some sort of evidence,” Carrie insists. “I wish I could get in.”
With that, a PennLive reporter walks up the stairs of the stoop, rings the bell and knocks on the door.
Within a minute – and after a few more knocks – the door opens.
Carrie Donaldson first encountered the absorbing details of Harrisburg’s Murder House by accident.
In 2017, Carrie, a self-described ancestry buff, was probing a branch of her family tree rooted in late 1800s Philadelphia. A wrong turn led her to the “Murder House.”
The family surname Carrie was researching was Guyer. Among the information her query spit back were news stories out of Harrisburg chronicling the search for a dentist’s nursemaid named Bessie Guyer. At the time, she was thought to be the victim in the “Murder House” case.
Bessie Guyer turned out to be a red herring in both Carrie’s ancestry research and in the 1915 case. Bessie was no family relation of Carrie’s, and back in 1915, an enterprising reporter discovered her alive and well, a married mother of two in Chambersburg.
But after reading those initial news reports, Carrie Donaldson was hooked.
As she explains it, Carrie has one of those personalities that can be completely captivated by puzzles. There was no more messy, incomplete mosaic than the “Murder House” case. Its nagging questions called to her from across time.
If the girl in the cellar grave wasn’t Bessie Guyer, who was it? And which of the long line of tenants or neighbors had killed her, then laid her in that secret grave, only to be discovered when plumbers dug for a smelly sewer leak?
The front page of the Harrisburg Courier on Feb. 14, 1915. Harrisburg Courier 1915
“The story of the girl stuck with me,” Carrie explains. “Maybe it’s because I like mysteries. I wanted to find out how it ended. And it didn’t really end. I kept thinking about it. I kept looking for more information. It just kind of snowballed. I slowly became — I don’t want to say obsessed with it — but yeah.”
Armed with Internet tools unimagined in 1915, Carrie mined old newspaper accounts and public records to mount her own investigation.
“It’s unmeasurable in terms of hours,” she says of the time she’s invested. “When I’m not taking care of my daughter, I am looking for things on this case, or I am thinking about it.”
Over the years, she’s amassed hundreds of documents and scores of newspaper reports. She’s constructed spreadsheets on all the tenants and some of the neighbors, layering in information she’s gathered on their occupations, families, even their social lives. All to evaluate, then rate their possible motives, means and opportunity in the killing.
Employing this method, Donaldson has ruled out most of the former tenants and neighbors.
For example, a retired railroad worker and his family occupied the house during several years that could’ve coincided with the murder. But Carrie scratched him from her list after her research revealed he’d lost a leg in a railroad accident.
Carrie concluded he wasn’t likely to possess the physical strength to commit the violent hatchet killing, partially dismember and burn the body, remove the rear basement stairs, then dig a three-foot-deep grave through concrete and hard-packed earth.
“The story of the girl stuck with me. Maybe it’s because I like mysteries. I wanted to find out how it ended.”
Indeed, the vast majority of the information Carrie has uncovered has ruled out most of the people with ties to the case.
Yet, her Internet digging just might have hit pay dirt on another tenant. Bright red flags of marital discord and domestic violence flashed as Carrie probed the life of one “Murder House” dweller. Deep suspicions about him have gnawed at Carrie ever since.
For lack of a better word, this man is now her prime — but not her only — suspect.
Similarly, Carrie has assembled a long list of young women reported missing during the 10 to 15 years prior to the discovery of the girl’s remains in 1915. Exhaustive searches enabled her to learn the fates of most of them.
Their stories are littered with stealth departures and surprise elopements, but also plenty of tragedy and death, mostly unrelated to the case.
But two names on Carrie’s list were never found. Tantalizingly, both cases were tied to recent inheritances of large sums of money. Could either woman be a fit for the girl in the cellar grave? Was the cash both were about to inherit the motive?
Carrie continues to investigate all of these leads. Meanwhile, she’s shared her research with PennLive and The Patriot-News for this special report.
“I would eventually like to have that ah-ha moment – that’s who it was. That’s who she was. That’s who the killer was,” Carrie says. “There is a link there, somewhere.”
For Carrie, it all starts with giving the girl in the grave her name back.
Above all, she is the key to solving the entire case.
Illustrations used by Carrie Donaldson at her Delaware home to help her solve the cold case murder that took place in Harrisburg, Pa. in 1915. Sean Simmers |firstname.lastname@example.org
Short of catching a killer with a body, it’s a practical impossibility to solve a homicide when the victim’s identity remains unknown.
Investigators’ inability to do so in 1915 doomed them to failure. Without the girl’s name and therefore her background, there was no way to establish any connections to viable suspects in her killing.
This was the original probe’s fatal flaw, according to Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo.
At PennLive’s request, Chardo reviewed press coverage of the case, overseen by his long-ago predecessor, DA Michael Stroup.
Chardo credits Stroup, his county detective and the county coroner as doing everything possible, given the limited forensic technologies of the time.
“As a starting point, identifying the victim was the key,” Chardo said.
Unfortunately, nationwide missing persons databases weren’t dreamt of back then. Instead, Harrisburg police supplied investigators with a short list of young women reported missing in the local jurisdiction.
If the victim had been missing from outside the immediate area – Philadelphia, for instance, or was a recent immigrant with family overseas – word of her disappearance likely never reached investigators in Dauphin County.
If those bones in the basement were discovered today, both Chardo and Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick told PennLive the outcome of the case would be far different. With today’s technology, including a growing national database of dental records and using mitochondrial DNA to identify the bones, the victim’s name all but certainly would have been known, they said.
If the bones in the Allison Hill basement were discovered today, both Dauphin County District Attorney Fran Chardo and Dauphin County Coroner Graham Hetrick told PennLive the outcome of the case would be far different. Dan Gleiter | email@example.com
In this case, the hatchet to the girl’s face likely destroyed much of the structure of her jaw and teeth. Loose teeth were found in her grave. This makes an ID based on dental records less likely, Hetrick said.
Still, the girl’s unique human signature could have been recovered from her long, thick leg bone in the form of mitochondrial DNA, he added.
This small circular chromosome that’s passed from mother to offspring can be recovered from bones more than a century old, Hetrick said. While thicker thigh bones are best for its recovery, new techniques are being developed all the time.
The process of extracting DNA from smaller bones is so new and technologically advanced, it’s only being conducted at one lab in the country. Needless to say, there’s a long backlog. But the wait is well worth it, almost always resulting in a positive ID, he said.
Once the DNA is extracted, analyzed and decoded, this unique molecular signature of mother-line ancestry is fed into a national database containing DNA signatures of anyone who’s ever had their double helix genetic chain analyzed for medical procedures, as part of a criminal case, or even for personal reasons through the growing number of retail DNA services, such as 23andMe.
Almost always, there’s a relative whose DNA is in the system, ultimately leading to an identification.
In 1915, of course, none of these techniques existed.
And in failing to give the girl in the grave her name, Chardo said his predecessor was badly crippled in his quest to catch her killer.
“DA Stroup expressed it well,” Chardo said of the long-dead district attorney whose portrait still hangs on the office’s lobby wall.
“It was a hundred-to-one shot it was going to be solved.”
Carrie Donaldson insists her odds are much better. She’s intent upon finally learning the girl’s name.
To do so, Carrie ventures to the forlorn cemetery where the girl’s bones now rest – and then, finally, to the place where those bones were first unearthed 106 years ago.
The “Murder House,” itself.
Don’t miss the conclusion to the Murder House special report, as the sleuth and a PennLive reporter gain entry to the house’s basement, the scene of the crime. Coming tomorrow on PennLive.