Case File #0231
The Sawmill Murder
The Murder of Margaret Martin
"Some one familiar with the territory placed the body in the creek"
On 17 December 1938, 19-year-old college graduate Margaret Martin left her home in Kingston, Pennsylvania to meet with an unknown man who offered her a potential secretarial job. When she failed to return, Martin's family reported her missing and began a search of the surrounding area. Four days later her body was discovered in the wilderness around 20 miles away. She had been horribly tortured, mutilated and strangled before her bound and trussed body was dumped in a mountain stream where it was found by a hunter. There were few clues as to her killer's identity, except the owner of a sawmill reported interrupting an unknown trespasser, and police believe this is where the murder occurred. Witnesses came forward with a description of a man seen with Martin around the time of her disappearance but no one has ever been arrested and charged in connection with her murder.
At the beginning of December 1938, Margaret Martin graduated with honours from Wilkes-Barre Business College, having attended classes to gain secretarial skills with the intention of finding work as a stenographer. A former classmate, Betty Hopkins described her as, "a shy, studious, friendly girl who had many friends", and she was well liked within the community of Kingston, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Her parents raised Margaret and her siblings as devout Catholics, and her father John Martin, was a coal mine foreman and member of the local democratic committee. The Martin's had four children, of which 19-year-old Margaret was the eldest and included, 17-year-old Mary, 15-year-old Helen and 12-year-old Jack.
Margaret Martin was contacted the Saturday morning of 17 December 1938, by an unknown man who offered her a job. He explained he was setting up an insurance company and was in need of a qualified stenographer and had a suitable secretarial position available. He added that he had heard of her through the Wilkes-Barre Business College. Ms. Martin was gleefully anticipating her first job since graduating college and looking forward to earning some money before the Christmas holidays, and she agreed to meet with the man at Kingston Corners, located not far from the Martin family home.

Margaret Martin

When she left the house that morning to keep her appointment with the mysterious telephone caller, Margaret promised her parents she would return home immediately. It would be the last time they saw her alive. When she failed to appear by the evening, her worried family and friends contacted police and reported her missing. During the investigation into her disappearance, police and volunteers conducted a search of the surrounding area.
Several witnesses came forward with information pertinent to the case. Martin was seen the day of her disappearance, in conversation with an unknown man and then getting into what was described as a black sedan or brown Plymouth. The description given of the man was vague and he was believed to be a "suave, neat, sandy-haired young man", slightly overweight and between the ages of 25 and 30 years old. None of the witnesses were able to identify the license plate of the car.
There were numerous theories on what might have happened to Ms. Martin, with some believing she had been kidnapped. The absence of a ransom note seemed to indicate that it was more likely she was either the victim of a "sex maniac" or had fallen victim to white slaver traders. The search failed to find any trace of her, and the publicity surrounding the disappearance was hampered because the local newspapers were on strike.
On 21 December 1938, just several days after she vanished, the body of Margaret Martin was discovered in the Wyoming county woodlands, around 25 miles from her home. 19-year-old Anthony Rezykowski was out trapping muskrats in the forested area when he made the grim discovery. As he places snares under a footbridge, he noticed a large burlap sack which had been partially submerged in two feet of shallow water in Keelersburg Creek, which was eight miles from Tunkhannock.

The discovery at Keelersburg Creek

When he went to investigate further, he noticed the bag had been stitched with twine and one of the knots had slipped open, revealing a human arm. When he peeked inside, he saw the naked body of a young woman, and immediately notified police. It was soon identified as the body of Margaret Martin, and it was determined she had been dead for at least 24 hours. Tracks along the tiny Keelersburg Creek were blotted ouy by snow, and state troopers conducted a search the immediate area looking for clues.
The coroner concluded from the bruises to her neck that the cause of death was strangulation. But she suffered many other wounds and had been tortured and mutilated by her killer. Her body showed signs of having been beating with a large object, possibly a rock, and there were knife wounds to her stomach and thigh. The coroner commented that she had, "suffered the molestation of a degenerate"
Her family was notified, and John Martin said of his daughter, "our little girl fought for herself and died the pure girl she was", whilst her mother said, "she is with God today". Lieutenant Charles S. Cooke headed a detail of the state police investigation into the murder and asserted the killer was apparently someone familiar with the Wyoming woodlands, who had driven a car to roughly 75 yards from the bridge, then carried the body to the spot where it was found. He reiterated this fact by saying, "Some one familiar with the territory placed the body in the creek and it might not have been found for several years if the young man setting traps had not passed through the lonely section."
Because of the remote location of the discovery and the manner in which the body was found, convinced Lieutenant Cooke that the murder took place somewhere else. The owner of a Forkston sawmill, James Kedd, reported finding a trespasser on his property, and fired a warning shot in the intruders direction apparently scaring the man off. This incident occurred the day before Martin's body was discovered, and the sawmill was 12 miles from Keelerburg Creek. Police theorised the trespasser was the killer, who murdered Martin inside the sawmill and then attempted to dismember her body and destroy it in the mill's firebox.

The Forkston sawmill

Ashes were recovered from the sawmill boiler, and police were confident there would contain particles of clothing worn by Ms. Martin, along with metal fragments believed to be a dress ornament. However, these were analysed by a Wilkes-Barre chemist and found to contain only waste material. Major William Clark, the Third Squadron Commander who headed the state police investigation concluded that the sawmill theory had been "almost eliminated", but more inquiries would be made. The only clues left with the body were the two burlap bags in which the body was found, a length of sash cord which had bound the body and a gentleman's silk scarf, which had no identifying marks.
On 22 December, the Scranton Tribune made a prediction that the killer would be captured within the following 24 hours. The funeral of Margaret Martin was held on 24 December at St. Ignatius Church in Kingston, and many hundreds of people were in attendance. Several plainclothed officers were also present, working on the belief they might spot someone acting suspiciously.
Four days later, on 28 December, Pennsylvania state senator Leo C. Mundy declared that he would introduce a bill at the next state legislature, which would make sex crimes punishable by execution. It would also include the registration of all sex offenders, and requirement of all physicians, social and welfare workers to report anyone who exhibited such tendencies. Senator Mundy was prompted to introduce this bill as a direct result of Margaret Martin's brutal murder.
The deputy commissioner of the state police, Colonel Cecil M. Wilhelm predicted that the mystery of her death would some day be solved. The investigation explored many other avenues, including a suspicious vehicle seen parked at a mountain cabin on the night of the murder, which might possibly have belonged to the killer, but was soon ruled out when the owner gave police a satisfactory explanation for his movements in the area. further leads also led nowhere.
A reported incident where a bundle of clothing thrown from a car near Orwigsburg was suspected to be the killer disposing of Martin's clothes, but proved to be unrelated. Officers attempts to check a statement that a witness attributed to a Kingston man who allegedly said, "I'm going to make a date with that Martin girl or break my neck in the attempt", proved fruitless. By early 1939, most leads in the case either fizzled out or resulted in a dead end for detectives.
The manhunt for the killer would continue and by February 1939, many suspects were investigated and discounted. Two men who attempted to attack a 16-year-old girl from Hanover Township in Luzerne County, were questioned and cleared. Many locals had their own theories on who the killer might be, such as a mortician from Wyoming County, a local assistant pastor, a businessman's son who left the area soon after the murder, a local teenager who had a crush on the victim and similarly a teacher at the Wilkes-Barre Business College who held an infatuation with Martin.
The case was the most baffling mysteries the local and state police had ever encountered. In June 1939, the Luzerne county district attorney's office announced there would be no request to Luzerne county commissioners to offer a reward for the capture of the killer. However it was disclosed that new clues had surfaced in the case which might soon lead to the arrest of one of two suspects. He did not specify what those clues were nor whether an arrest was imminent. Despite this promising development, nothing further was revealed and no arrests were made.
In September 1942, 21-year-old Orban Taylor of New York City confessed to Scranton police that he was responsible for the death of Margaret Martin. Taylor was formerly a resident of Wilkes-Barre and told investigators he visited the area whilst serving in the US Army. Despite his admission of guilt, Taylor was unable to reveal to detectives how he disposed of the victim's clothing, which had never been found. After more than ten hours of questioning the young man repudiated his confession.
NY Detective Captain George W. Donaldson who was leading the investigation explained that the military authorities at Fort Jay joined the investigation being conducted by the State Motor Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation because Taylor had been dishonourably discharged from the army. Although he denied murdering Ms. Martin, he did confess to other crimes, including several robberies, a stabbing in New York and of defrauding several hotels in Philadelphia, Newark NJ and Elizabeth NJ. Subsequently he was not charged with murder.
In the decades after her murder, the circumstances of Margaret Martin's death are still unexplained and her killer has never been brought to justice. Many of those who worked the case came to believe the man responsible must have been a local, because of his knowledge of the area, whilst others suspect it might have been the work of a serial killer. Despite the advancement of forensic scientific techniques, the case remains unsolved.

Written by Nucleus