The Disappearance of Joan Risch
Updated: Apr 18
Joan Risch was originally Joan Bard and was born in 1930 in Brooklyn, NY. In the last two cases I haven’t really talked about the victims early life but Joan suffered a traumatic experience that I thought I should add in.
Around the age of 9 Joan’s parents died. Their family home caught on fire and neither of the parents made it out. For anyone this could be a very traumatic experience that could shape ones life or cause an outburst in the future, but we will touch more on that later.
Getting more into her life closer to the disappearance, Joan married in 1956. She was married to an executive for a company she actually worked for, and shortly after the marriage she left work to raise a family. Joan was very happy with Martin, her husband, by all accounts and she was an extremely devoted mother to Martin and Lillian, their two children.
October 24, 1961 is the day that this families life would change forever. In the early morning hours Martin left for a work trip which he did frequently, it wasn’t anything out of the norm for the family. The morning and early afternoon went as it normally would. Joan fed the children breakfast and took them to dentist appointments (This is what I read in multiple accounts of the story.) At some time before 1:55p.m. Joan’s neighbor, Barbara Barker, brought her son over to play with Lillian. The time that this happened is not certain, I am only saying before 1:55p.m. because at 1:55p.m. Joan dropped off both children at Barbara’s home. She told the children she would be back in 20 minutes. However, 20 minutes later at 2:15p.m. Barbara saw Joan walking from her car to her garage in a long trench coat and carrying something red in her hands. This was the last for sure known sighting of Joan.
Moving on with the timeline, around 3:25p.m. another neighbor of Joan saw a dirty blue sedan in Joan’s driveway. Other neighbors confirmed this sighting and remembered seeing it leave the driveway as well, although it is unknown what time that exactly happened.
Around 3:40p.m. Barbara dropped Lillian off at her home so that she could take her own children shopping. When she returned a while later Lillian walked up to her immediately. Lillian said that “Mommy is gone and the kitchen is covered with red paint.” Obviously, this was not red paint, this was blood smears all over the kitchen that had been partially cleaned up. There was paper towels still in the blood that shown someone had attempted to clean it up but then gave up quickly. Another eerie piece of evidence is that the phone had been ripped off the wall and thrown into the garbage can. The phone book was open to the emergency numbers page which give the idea Joan was planning to call for help. Although most of the blood was on the kitchen walls and floor there was a trail leading up the stairs and into her baby’s room, as well as the master bedroom. There was also a trail that led from the kitchen to Joan’s car and there was a coat hanger sitting on the top of the car.
Later on it was determined that this blood was Joan’s blood type but that there was not enough to have killed her. There were three finger prints and a palm print found in blood on the kitchen wall…and none of them were Joan’s. This is where the case pretty much goes cold. There are some sightings of Joan on the roads. People on Route 128 saw someone matching Joan’s description walking down the road that afternoon. They stated that there was blood on her legs and she was hunched over, clutching her stomach. I said sightings lightly since it was never confirmed this was Joan and there really isn’t evidence to point one way or another.
Another eerie piece of evidence is that Joan’s name had been found checking out library books on unsolved disappearances that summer. She checked out at least 25 of these books over the summer which caused some people to speculate.
Alright, let’s move on into the theories. As I just talked about, Joan was found to be checking out many true crime books in the months before she disappeared. This has caused many people to believe she was researching the perfect plan for a voluntary disappearance. However, her husband stated that she simply liked these books and was interested in true crime just as we all are. I mean if someone looked at what books I was reading as a way to find me after I went missing they would be thrown in all different directions. I do not think this is really a plausible theory as to what happened to Joan but I could see this theory from those who do not understand an interest in true crime.
Another theory I would like to talk about is the botched abortion theory. I found this one on the sub reddit called “The Bizarre 1961 Disappearance of Joan Risch.” This theory was presented by someone with the username afdc92:
My best guess is that she had a “doctor” come over to perform an abortion and it went wrong and she started bleeding and there was panic and confusion (she tried to call emergency numbers, they got into a struggle and he stopped her and ripped the phone off the wall and threw it away). Maybe he took her somewhere else until she stopped bleeding but she died of her wounds and her body was hidden so he wouldn’t be charged with murder and performing illegal abortions; maybe she wandered off and went to find help, but in her pain and confusion she accidentally wandered into the construction zone, died, and was accidentally buried (although you would expect more of a “blood trail” in this case). I’m inclined to think the woman seen on the road was another red herring and was unrelated to Joan’s case, but I could also be wrong about that.
When I first read this theory it really struck me as a great one. I could see this as a very plausible thing back in 1961 when abortions were either not legal or very hard to get. Maybe this unwanted child came about from an affair and she thought she needed to get it done. One commenter on this sub reddit stated they grew up around this area and adultery was a very real thing all over the town. I think with the phone in the trash and the coat hanger on the car could definitely point towards a botched abortion.
u/Robinwarder1 states that he found some evidence of a theory suggesting that a neighbors husband killed Joan:
If you visit Joan Risch’s Wikipedia page, you’ll find a PDF containing original documents from the case (such as newspaper articles and police reports), which were assembled together by a group called “New England’s Untold Stories”. Curiously, the PDF file outlines a potential scenario where Joan was murdered by an intruder inside her home, and follows this up with maps of land which were owned by Barbara Barker and her husband, William, in the nearby town of Lexington. It lists the location as “Joan’s suspected burial site” and seems to infer that William Barker was her killer, but provides no context or explanation for this, and you will not find William Barker’s name in any articles or official documentation about the case.
This could be a potential theory; however I would need more evidence and a motive to really believe it. I cannot find any information on where William Baker was supposed to be that day but I think his location records could either discredit this or turn this into a more workable theory.
Although this is not a theory I would like to add in something that the reddit user AnnieEnnui said:
Has there ever been any speculation that Barbara Barker was lying about what happened that afternoon? It seems like the sequence of events she gave is taken as fact, but I just wondered if her husband WERE somehow involved, she would have motivation to lie. I suppose the daughter could corroborate Barbara’s story, but she was young and could have been easily confused. I don’t know, like Robin said, there’s no solution that makes all the pieces fit together nicely in this one.
I have never even thought about questioning Barbara’s explanation of events and that says something in itself. If we were so able to take what she said as fact then maybe those in the town at that time were too. If it had been her husband that did something then he would have the perfect alibi to tell a different story. This really is something to think about, let me know your thoughts on this.
Lastly, I would like to revisit the idea of her traumatic childhood. I haven’t exactly seen this online but I believe this could be a theory, although there isn’t much evidence of it. I think that her traumatic childhood, loosing her parents, could have affected her randomly in life. Maybe she had a psychological breakdown and hurt herself, then in a daze she left her home, never to be found again. It was said that on Route 128 there was a lot of construction and she could’ve fallen in somewhere and been buried without anyone realizing it. So, if she has a psychological break down then maybe she wandered off and fell in.
Can’t wait to see what you all think about this case and hear from you on Tuesday for the next installment of The Great Unsolved. Be sure to check out the podcast and follow along as well. I would love to receive messages that I could talk about on the show, so please send me some.
Until next time, don’t trust everyone you meet.