Mary Jane's Ghost
The letter I shook from the packed envelope was typed on lavender stationery. Later, someone who knows about these things would tell me lavender’s the color of romance, mourning, mistrust, and cruelty. Makes sense now.
In six paragraphs on that stationery, Mike Arians sought help. He was looking into the unsolved murders of two young lovers who died way back in 1948 in the small, scenic river town of Oregon, Illinois. It was a shocking crime that started with a man shot to death on a lovers’ lane, followed by the kidnapping of his date, and ending with her murder.
Newspapers from Chicago to Iowa described the crime, Mike wrote, as “the most heinous of its time known to the Midwest.” Coverage actually extended much farther, from the Portland Press Herald in Maine to the Long Beach Press-Telegram in California. But the killings faded from the headlines after a few days. In the nearly six decades since, they’d become lost.
Mike had been “extensively involved in researching” the case for roughly five years, he said, and he had a scandalous theory about what happened to Mary Jane Reed and Stanley Skridla late one summer night in 1948. He wanted to exhume one of the victims’ bodies in hopes of finding DNA evidence and anything else that might be illuminating.
I read the letter in my cubicle at the Chicago Tribune, where I worked as a general assignment reporter marooned in the suburbs. It was 2003. The ground under the newspaper business was starting to get soft but hadn’t yet turned into the quicksand that would swallow more than a hundred newspapers and put somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 journalists out of work. At this point, it was still pretty much the Good Ol’ Days. At least newspapers largely pretended it was.
Mike described himself as the “recent” former mayor of Oregon and a retired insurance fraud investigator. He ran the Roadhouse, a rustic restaurant and tavern on the outskirts of town.
“There is little question in my mind who the perpetrator of this crime was,” he wrote. “Probably the more interesting story is the cover-up that has gone on for over 50 years.”
He had enclosed copies of old newspaper clips, fascinating anthropological relics available without having to scratch through the dirt using a toothbrush. They’re raw history as it happens, unrefined by bloviators. I love old newspaper clips.
These were from 1948. Seven of them. Six from the Tribune, a model of midwestern understatement that called itself “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Five months after the dates on these clips, the World’s Greatest Newspaper ran history’s most infamously wrong headline, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” Decades later, you could buy T-shirts and posters of a photograph of Harry Truman, freshly elected president over Thomas Dewey, holding up the newspaper headline and beaming.
On June 26, 1948, the paper ran a front-page story about Frances Dewey, Thomas’s wife. She revealed that she weighed 120 pounds and liked “off the face hats and all kinds of colors.” Next to that story was a grim dispatch from Oregon.
“SUITOR KILLED, HUNT FOR GIRL,” the headline read. “Fear She Is Dead or a Suitor’s Captive.”
“The slaying of a handsome young man from Rockford, and the mysterious disappearance of an 18-year-old girl he had dated a few hours earlier”—she actually was seventeen—“sent authorities on a wide hunt for the young woman tonight in the belief that she, too, is dead or is the captive of a jealous suitor,” the story reported.
“Sheriff’s deputies were searching banks of the Rock River and ditches and culverts for some trace of the girl, Miss Mary Jane Reed, comely telephone operator here.”
The story went on to say that “a love triangle theory was advanced” by Ogle County sheriff Joseph Maas when he’d learned that Mary Jane had not been seen since her date with twenty-eight-year-old Navy vet Stanley Skridla. His body had been found that morning along the lovers’ lane south of town. Maas already had questioned six men who were acquaintances of Mary Jane’s, but none “could throw any light on the case.” The sheriff said he planned to question any other boyfriends she might have had.
The newspaper reported that Mary Jane weighed 120 pounds, same as Frances Dewey, I noted. Stanley worked as a telephone lineman. His hometown of Rockford, then a city of 90,000, was about twenty-five miles northeast of Oregon.
“He met Miss Reed recently after they became acquainted thru telephone conversations while he was testing and repairing wires,” the paper reported. “Miss Reed worked until 10 p.m. Thursday and was seen leaving an Oregon tavern with Skridla about 11:30 p.m. The next to the youngest of six children of Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Reed of Oregon, she was to have been a bridesmaid today at the wedding of Donald Reed, a brother.” The family postponed the wedding.
The couple had stopped at a number of nightspots, including the establishment that later would become the Roadhouse, before heading to lovers’ lane. The shooting occurred between 1 and 2 a.m. on that gravel road, where police found shells and a “big pool of blood” the next morning, the newspaper reported. “The slayer had a .32 caliber and he pumped four bullets into Skridla’s chest and abdomen,” Sheriff Maas told the Tribune. “After the shooting, somebody dragged the body several feet into the ditch,” a task that would have taken considerable strength, the sheriff added. Stanley weighed 175 pounds. Someone also had moved Stanley’s Buick about a mile north, to a lot across the street from what would become the Roadhouse.
“The sheriff said he still believed Miss Reed was overpowered by the slayer and carried from the scene, either dead or as a prisoner,” the Tribune reported. “Search for her body continued today with several hundred volunteers aiding deputy sheriffs in beating thru near-by woodland.”
On Tuesday, June 29, 1948, the Tribune’s banner headline was “REDS DEMAND TITO OUSTER,” a reference to Communists’ push to dump the Yugoslavian premier, who had “veered from the party line.” Tucked deeper in the newspaper was a peculiar four-paragraph story about Mary Jane’s father meeting with a fortune-teller who assured Clifford that his daughter was safe.
“Reed, a blacksmith, said the fortune-teller told him Mary Jane is alive, unharmed, and held prisoner by a man of dark complexion,” the story reported. “The sheriff said he still is without any clew to Mary Jane’s whereabouts. He was told by a farmer yesterday that a gray haired man has made a habit in recent weeks of coming to the lane alone in an automobile and parking for hours at a time.”
I turned to the next clipping. It included a photo of Mary Jane, in full profile, on the back page of the paper. She’s seated in the grass, dressed in white shorts that had inched up high on her thighs and a white bikini top. Her hands, palms pressed to the ground, are behind her a few inches. Her elbows are locked. Her left leg is crooked at the knee, right leg bent at a higher angle. She has full, wavy dark hair—people described it as auburn—that stopped just above her shoulders.
She is lovely and she is smiling, and not the smile you might get from a Sunday school teacher after reciting this week’s prayer. More like a smile from a woman who knows she has something you want, something you’d like very much.
I stared at the photo. What it must have been like to be Mary Jane Reed, blossoming into full womanhood, with all its anxiety and restlessness, in a small town so far from any real action when so much action was to be had in post–World War II America.
Copyright © 2017. Used with permission of the University of Iowa Press.