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I spend a lot of time with old newspapers, and I love it. One of my favorite parts of having a true crime podcast is research. My show, Murder, She Told (https://murdershetold.com), which focuses on Maine and New England true crime, uses a lot of these old newspapers in the cases we present.
Digging through archives, I’ll often stumble upon headlines I wasn’t originally looking for—cases that have been buried with time. Some that made their way through the justice system and out of the headlines. Others that didn’t get that far, and, at some point, were given up on.
The case of Elizabeth Freel (https://www.murdershetold.com/episodes/elizabeth-freel) from 1936, whose body was found burning in the mountains of New Hampshire, is by far the most bizarre and baffling historic case I’ve discovered.
“CHARRED AND BROKEN BODY OF WOMAN FOUND ON LONELY MOUNTAIN.”
Around 4:00PM on the afternoon of May 20th, 1936, firefighters were called to Rattlesnake Hill to put out a fire. Rattlesnake Hill overlooks the Connecticut River Valley and borders Brattleboro, VT. It was given its name because at the time, it was infested with rattlesnakes (yes, rattlesnakes). The men climbed a steep, overgrown 2-mile trail in full gear and spent all night putting out the flames, and by the morning, they had made a gruesome discovery.
The source of the fire wasn’t a bolt of lightning or a smoldering cigarette butt; it was the body of a woman, burned beyond recognition.
At the crime scene, they discovered about a dozen bullets embedded in the dirt under where she lay, a fully loaded .22 caliber revolver, a 1-gallon empty maple syrup can, and 99 cents scattered about. There was blunt force trauma on the back of her head, and both of her arms and legs were broken. A burned-up suitcase lay on top of her remains. They determined that an accelerant had been used to light the fire.
Nothing at the scene had a name of the mystery woman, so they set about trying to figure out who she was.
The police told the media they believed she was a young woman, and the medical examiner said that she had recently had an abortion shortly before death, spurring rumors of a scorned lover taking revenge. Was it murder? Or did she die by suicide?
They were able to use the serial number of the gun to determine where it had been sold. When they contacted the shop owner, he said that the woman had given the name Grace Hurley, and said she was from Boston. He recalled that she was middle-aged, and seemingly wealthy, peeling off twenties from a roll of bills that looked to contain about $500.
Through some more detective work, and through the help of reporters at the Brattleboro Reformer, it was determined that a guest at a local hotel had given the name Grace Hurley, and had signed in on Tuesday, May 19th, just two days before the fire. She, too, gave her hometown as Boston.
Locals remembered her walking on the trails, interacting with other guests, and paying for everything in bills from a large roll of cash. The Great Depression wouldn’t end for another few years, making people who carry and present large wads of cash something memorable for most people.
But none of the Boston officials that the police contacted seemed to know anything about a Grace Hurley. Was Grace even here real name? The police offered up dental records as well as Grace’s signature to the media, hoping somebody would come forward.
Fortunately, Boston papers picked up the story, and a man in Clinton, Massachusetts recognized the handwriting in the paper and the pseudonym, “Grace Hurley.” It was his wife… Elizabeth Freel. He contacted their dentist, and the doctor confirmed it: the records matched. Grace had been unmasked.
So how did Elizabeth end up on that mountain? And why was she using an assumed name?
Elizabeth’s husband, Robert Freel, told detectives their relationship was unusual. In recent years, Elizabeth had been taking off for days or weeks at a time, returning home when the money ran out. He said her wanderlust was connected with a nervous condition that she had suffered from for nearly 15 years. She’d stay at extravagant hotels under pseudonyms in cities like Boston and New York. Grace Hurley was her favorite name. He never asked questions, and always left $50 around the house so she wouldn’t be without money. He said that despite her quirks and her mental health disorder, he didn’t think his wife would take her own life. He also said he knew nothing of her apparent pregnancy or abortion.
Unravelling the mystery
Investigators discovered that Elizabeth had made two trips to the Brattleboro area before her death. The owner of the hotel she stayed at said she seemed nervous and like she was waiting for somebody. She would take long walks out towards the mountain, which was odd considering she was in heels.
A few days before the fire, on her second and final trip to Brattleboro, she purchased the revolver and the one-gallon maple syrup can. On the morning of her death, Elizabeth herself purchased the flammable cleaning solution—a mixture of gasoline and kerosene—that investigators believed was used to stoke the blaze.
Investigators revisited the crime scene, hoping to find additional clues, and discovered they’d missed a brand-new flashlight in a bush nearby, in a bag with a receipt from a Five and Dime marked the same day as the fire. The clerk remembered a young man buying it, but didn’t know his name. Could he be connected to Elizabeth? Their search for a potential weapon that caused the blunt force trauma was unsuccessful.
Everything that was found at the crime scene was scattered: her dentures were found 12 feet away from her body, the syrup can was 25 feet away, and her suitcase was lying on top of her body.
Police were completely baffled. The circumstances were, and still are, completely mystifying.
Elizabeth climbed a steep, extremely overgrown, rattlesnake infested 2-mile trail with a suitcase and a gallon can full of flammable solution… in heels.
Her body was found off the trail in untamed forest with trauma to the head, broken bones, and completely immolated. The medical examiner believed the broken bones most likely came from the extreme heat of the fire, but the heat didn’t explain the head trauma. How could she do all these things to herself? Why would somebody bring her up that far to kill her?
Even more strange, the .22 revolver that she purchased, which was found near her body, was fully loaded and was determined not to have been discharged. But underneath her body, embedded 3-4” in the dirt, were about a dozen bullets.
Vermont detectives were insistent that Elizabeth had died by suicide, coming up with a theory of how it happened: as she was seated, she lit the fire and the burst of the flames was so strong it sent her backward, causing her to hit her head on a rock, which was the cause of death.
The New Hampshire state medical examiner strongly disagreed, saying the blunt force trauma couldn’t have been caused by the rock at the scene. It didn’t match up. Her death happened before the fire, as shown by the blood evidence. Elizabeth was murdered.
Ultimately, they couldn’t agree on what happened. Without new information coming in and with the investigation at a standstill, it eventually faded out of the headlines never to be revisited.
I covered this case on Murder, She Told in May of 2021, bringing Elizabeth’s story to a modern world. There were no hits for her name on the internet prior. Her case had been buried with time. Since releasing, I have heard from a few family members; among them, the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth, and a son of Robert Freel from his marriage after Elizabeth’s death.
Her story is tragic, and puzzling. But it shouldn’t be forgotten.
The most frustrating part about this story is that I truly have no idea what I think happened to Elizabeth. Though I can entertain the two official theories, at the same time, neither of them makes sense to me. I don’t know how to wrap my head around at this case, and I think that’s why I find it so fascinating.
Even if we don’t have the answers, I hope that by sharing Elizabeth’s story, that a part of local history has been recovered and preserved. Her memory, once forgotten by the public, will continue to live on. Maybe that’s the only kind of justice we can offer.
For an extensive list of sources and to learn more about this case, visit https://www.murdershetold.com/episodes/elizabeth-freel.
Kristen Seavey is a victim’s advocate and the creator and host of Murder, She Told, an award-winning true-crime podcast that dives into the lesser-known cold cases and crime stories from Maine and New England. She is from Newport, ME.
You can find and listen to Murder, She Told free on any podcast platform, or at https://murdershetold.com
I’m hooked! This doesn’t seem like a crime likely to be solved by DNA, but it calls out for solving!
This is such a great post, Kristen. Thanks for joining us at MCW today!
OMG!!! This was such a great post. I will be tuning in to your True Crime podcast just for fun when I am cooking but I will keep pen and paper nearby for ideas. Thank YOU!
Great post. These historical unsolved cases are fascinating. I’m obsessed with one from my hometown in the Midwest that happened Thanksgiving Eve 1937. What amazes me is what a narrow field of perpetrators law enforcement investigated.