The Bunny Man Unmasked - Page 2
The Bunny Man Unmasked:
The Real Life Origins of an Urban Legend
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Was the Bunny Man a murderer?
The aspect of the story which gets the most attention are the alleged murders. Researching historical crimes can be very difficult unless you have some basic facts to begin with. Since police records are not available for casual review and court records are indexed by the names of those involved, not by location or type of crime, I had to begin by checking the local newspapers. The tool that has proved the most valuable was the Fairfax County Public Library Historical Newspaper Index. 4 Virginia Room volunteers Malcolm Richardson and Barbara Welch worked for 10 years to compile a complete index to local Fairfax County newspapers. The careful work of these two, combined with the searching capabilities of a computer database, allowed us to extract every murder and killing reported by the local press from 1872 through 1973. Even though Fairfax County was a rural farming community until well into the 20th century there were over 550 individual mentions of killings in the study period. Eliminating "run of the mill" domestic murders and concentrating on multiple murders and those involving children (both of which were mercifully rare) served to pare down a list of more than 500 possible events to the following three:
1) Frances and June Holober: February 1949
It would be hard to imagine a more disturbing event for a growing community like Fairfax than the gruesome murders of 37-year-old Frances Holober and her eight-month-old daughter, June. On Thursday February 24, 1949 Mrs. Holober and her daughter drove to Fairfax County in the company of her estranged husband Charles. All were residents of the District of Columbia. Charles Holober later told police that they had come to see the new lodge at a nudist colony to which Mr. Holober belonged.
Upon leaving the lodge the car became mired in some mud. The couple quarreled and Mrs. Holober took the child and walked away from her husband and never returned. Charles Holober spent the night in the car and got a ride back to Washington the next day. He returned with his brother-in-law and a friend to retrieve the car. Still finding no evidence of his family, the police were finally notified.5 An intensive search of the area was organized involving Fairfax County Police, Washington Detectives, and Boy Scouts.
About 5:00 p.m., just as the searchers were about to give up for the night, one of the detectives noted that the ground on which they were standing was very soft. Both mother and daughter were found in a shallow grave next to the lodge and less than 200 yards from where Charles Holober's car had been stuck. Frances Holober had been beaten and then shot once in the head and once in the heart. The baby girl had been buried alive.6
The local community was shocked and horrified by the cold brutal character of the crime, especially when the investigation identified Charles Holober as the prime suspect. Holober later confessed to investigators that he had planned the murder for three weeks and had not intended to report the disappearance of his wife, but changed his plan when the car got caught in the mud.7 The case came to trial on January 16, 1950. After hearing four days of testimony the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Holober was sentenced to die in the electric chair.8 Holober's attorney, T. Brooke Howard, filed an appeal alleging that the jury failed to give proper consideration to the plea of insanity, and that the Court made errors in its instruction to the jury.9
The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals eventually overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. Charles Francis Holober was re-committed to the Western State Mental Hospital at Marion, Virginia, where he was judged to be insane.10 It is interesting to note that this was the first time since the Ridgeway Murder Trial of 1927 in which a Fairfax County jury invoked the death penalty.11
2) Minnie, Loretta and Catherine Ridgeway: March 1927
The available newspapers record many murders, but few shocked Fairfax like the ferocious and senseless attack on Mrs. Minnie Ridgeway and her two young daughters. Mrs. Ridgeway lived with her husband and three children on Telegraph Road in Alexandria. Sometime on the morning of March 4, 1927, a man later identified as Louis Boersig called at the home on the pretext of seeing Mr. Ridgeway. Upon finding that he was not at home, Boersig attacked and beat Minnie Ridgeway into unconsciousness and then likewise bludgeoned her daughters Loretta, 7, and Catherine, 5. He then stole money from the home and fled.
The crime was discovered by a neighbor who heard moans coming from inside the house. All three victims were taken to Alexandria Hospital, where Loretta later died. Catherine Ridgeway lived another eight days before succumbing to her injuries. Minnie recovered and was able to identify the assailant, who was known to the Ridgeways. Boersig was arrested at his home and transferred to the jail in Winchester for his safety.12
Louis Boersig was executed for the murders of Loretta and Catherine
Ridgeway on July 7, 1927, just three months after his horrific
3) Eva Roy: August 1918
Peter Roy was a Danish immigrant who had come to Fairfax from Minnesota in 1912. In November of that year he purchased two parcels of land near the current intersection of Old Keene Mill Road and Sydenstricker Road, totaling 180 acres.14 Roy, a widower, became a prosperous farmer and an active member of the Lee Chapel Methodist Church. With him resided his eldest daughter Caroline, her husband William K. Jerman, and his younger daughter Eva.
On the morning of Aug. 4, 1918, Eva Roy, age 14, left her home near Burke, at around 9:00 a.m. to tend her father's small herd of cows. When Eva failed to return home that evening her father began a search. Neighbors were soon enlisted to help, but it was some 24 hours later that her body was found tied to a tree in the woods near the old Hanse House, her apron strings tight about her throat. The county coroner, Dr. W. I. Robey, concluded that the girl had been "Brutally assaulted" before being strangled to death.15 A Coroner's Jury was appointed, and quickly concluded: "We, the jury, find that Eva Roy came to her death at the hands of some unknown person, and the indications point to Lu Hall, as the probable perpetrator of the crime."16 Hall, a 33-year-old woodcutter, lived about 1/2 mile from the scene of the crime and was seen in the woods near the time of the girl's disappearance.
The case was not to be easily solved, however, as other suspects were soon identified and eventually eliminated.
The first, William Wooster, age 16, was soon arrested for assaulting a "colored girl." He had recently been released from an insane asylum, but was found that he was nowhere near the scene of Eva's murder.17
The next suspect to emerge was a soldier who deserted from Camp A. A. Humphries (now Fort Belvoir). The soldier, a sergeant whom the papers fail to name, was located some days later near Charlottesville, Virginia. He had scratches on his face and hands, was wearing freshly laundered clothes, and claimed to have no memory of the events between his leaving Camp Humphries and his capture. Sheriff Allison traveled to Charlottesville to interview the man, but after some weeks of investigation determined that he was not connected with the crime.18
The lagging investigation seemed to finally receive a break with the apprehension of Ben Ruben, an escaped inmate from Lorton Prison. Ruben, who had been serving a three-year sentence for housebreaking,19 was arrested by Washington, D. C. police on September 19 for assaulting a little girl. While on the way to the police station he confessed to Eva's murder. Ruben claimed "he met Eva Roy, looking after her father's cows. He asked her for food and in a conversation with her he told her he was an ex-convict. She declared she would 'turn him up' as he declared, and he became excited and choked her."20 The Washington authorities were unconvinced by Ruben's story and wanted to try him for assault and theft before turning him over to the Virginia courts. An investigator sent by the Commonwealth of Virginia to interview Ruben concluded that he was not responsible for the crime, but extradition papers were filed anyway.21 On September 26 Ruben was escorted to the scene of the crime by Sheriff Allison, Commonwealth Attorney C. Vernon Ford, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Wilson M. Farr, Dr. Swetnam, and acting counsel for the defense F. D. Richardson.22 After being unable to locate the scene of the attack or the tree where the body was left, Ruben denied killing Eva. He claimed the presence of the girl's father spurred him to recant his confession. Ruben's motive for confessing was revealed some weeks later when on October 6 he escaped from the jail in Fairfax. He was arrested two days later while attempting to buy a pistol and admitted that he concocted his story in order to be transferred to Fairfax, where he thought escape would be easier.23 He was eventually convicted of burglary and escape from jail and was sentenced to four more years in prison.24
Lou Hall was finally tried for the murder in Fairfax County Court. The prosecution was handled by State's Attorney C. Vernon Ford, assisted by Wilson M. Farr. The defense was provided by Walter T. Oliver. His first trial resulted in a hung jury with nine votes for guilty, three for innocent.25 His second trial resulted in a clear verdict of "Not Guilty."26
Peter Roy died on January 22, 1938, and was interred in Lee Chapel Cemetery next to his youngest daughter.27 Her murderer was never found.
After scrutinizing the three preceding events I concluded that none are likely candidates for the Bunny Man. Charles Holober was caught and incarcerated. Louis Boersig was caught and summarily executed, and the murder of Eva Roy, even though it has many of the elements that a legend could build upon, is simply too old. This last assertion is based upon one other important factor that has emerged through my research. The Bunny Man, like any good legend, has evolved over time. The recent rash of persons researching the origins of this story have been largely attracted by the spectacular nature of the alleged crime. The previously cited Forbes version of the story features 32 victims and has a pronounced supernatural element. This contrasts sharply with versions of the tale I collected from the 1980s which generally involved only one to three victims, usually children. More importantly, the earliest versions (dating to the 1970s) did not mention any deaths at all. These earliest versions recount acts of vandalism (usually against secluded residential construction sites) or couples parked at secluded "Lovers Lane", type locations being accosted/threatened by a strange individual dressed in a white Bunny costume. More research was clearly needed.
4The Historical Newspaper Index can be accessed at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/library/branches/vr/newsindex/. Printed indexes to the Washington Post are available from 1971 to present, and their online Archives (www.washingtonpost.com) contains articles from 1977 to the present, but these sources were not helpful at this phase of the project.
5Posse Fails to Find Lost Mother, Baby. Washington Post, Feb. 27, 1949, 6M
6Wife and Baby Found Buried; Mate is Seized. Washington Post, Feb. 28, 1949, A1
7Fifty Years Behind the Badge, Fairfax County Police Department, 1990. Side bar P.31
8Appeal in Holober Case Uncertain, Fairfax Herald, Jan. 27, 1950, P.1
9Holober Appeal Granted. Fairfax Herald, June 16, 1950, P.1
10Holober Sent to State Hospital. Fairfax Herald, Mar. 16, 1951, P.1
11Holober to Have New Trial. Fairfax Herald, Jan. 19, 1951, P.1
12Makes Admission. Fairfax Herald, Mar. 11, 1927, P.5
13Paid Penalty. Fairfax Herald, July 8, 1927, P.2
14Sallie E. Stepp to Peter Roy (Db O7:208) & J. T. Van Sickler to Peter Roy (Db O7:451)
15Dastardly Crime. Fairfax Herald, Aug. 9, 1918, P.3
16Untitled handwritten document, Fairfax County Circuit Court Archives.
17No Clew Yet. Fairfax Herald, Aug. 16, 1918, P.3
18The Roy Case. Fairfax Herald, Aug. 30, 1918, P.3
19Confesses to Crime. Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 20, 1918, P.1
20To Undergo Grueling. Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 21, 1918, P.1
21Still Hold Ruben. Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 25, 1918, P.1
22Recants Confession. Alexandria Gazette, Sept. 27, 1918, P.1
23Ruben Again in Custody. Alexandria Gazette, Oct. 9, 1918, P.1
24Ben Ruben Sentenced. Fairfax Herald, Jan. 17, 1919, P.3
25No Verdict Found. Fairfax Herald, Nov. 29, 1918, P.3
26Hall Acquitted. Fairfax Herald, Mar. 28, 1919, P.3
27Obituary of Peter Roy. Fairfax Herald, Jan. 28, 1938, P.1