An Angel or A Devil? A True Crime Mystery.
On a cold December morning in 1859 the bodies of a man and a woman were found on the banks of the American River, near the town of Folsom, California.
Walter and Mathilda Carlson, a couple in their late 20’s had been gruesomely killed during the night and left for the coyotes and turkey vultures. Mathilda’s eyes had been either poked out and taken by her murderer or eaten by scavenging animals. Her neck was broken with obvious great strength. Walter was a good twenty feet down the beach. He was naked except for his red socks. He’d been beaten badly with signs of broken bones in his arms and legs. A gaping hole in his chest showed an empty place where his heart, now missing, had once been. On his face was an expression of horror even the most skilled undertaker couldn’t remove.
The men who removed the bodies and the Sheriff all said they saw a figure in the woods, perhaps dressed in white, or maybe gray, watching them as they worked. One of the men went to question the witness, but they vanished like a ghost in the morning fog.
The Carlsons had come to town only six months before their murder. He was an attorney. She was a caring mother of two young children, aged one and three years. The Carlsons also cared for Walter’s younger sister Lena, who was said to be insane.
Walter Carlson also had a brother, Charley, who lived in San Francisco. At one time Charley and his English friend Cornelius Jones had been business partners with Walter. As they told the Sheriff after the murders, on the night Walter and Mathilda left San Francisco, Cornelius had planned on asking Lena for her hand in marriage. Neither Charley or Cornelius knew where Walter had taken Lena. Cornelius was sick with grief.
When the Carson family arrived in Folsom they settled in quickly. Walter was a welcome addition to the community. The beautiful and charitable Mathilda was adored by all who met her.
Lena worked with her brother and sister-in-law. She was an odd young woman who walked with a limp and wore and eye patch. Her face might have been pretty if not for the constant look of overwhelming sadness, and the cropped dirty hedgehog like hair that spouted from her scalp.
Walter Carlson was quick to tell everyone she insane. They didn’t have the heart to put her into an asylum. Besides, she was a hard worker and if they kept her under control she could be a great help with the babies. All who knew Mathilda said she was a saint for giving a home to her crazy sister-in-law.
One night one of the Irish workers in town said he thought he saw two figures outside of the small one room building Lena stayed in. One looked like an angel spreading its wings and the other like a dog with a long tail, until it stood up upon two feet and looked like a demon. It was foggy that night, so it might have been men passing by and stopping to take a break, or to see if they could get a look at the crazy woman locked in the shed.
A few days later, in the rubbish pile behind the Carlson’s shop people found books of the writer Edgar Poe, Charles Maturin, and Oscar Wilde, with Lena’s name written inside each book in her neat fine handwriting. Carlson said the books put wicked and carnal thoughts into his sister’s head.
One day in late November a number of people overheard a heated discussion between Mathilda, Walter, and Lena.
“An angel of God will smite you down and then send for the Devil to come take your soul. Just you see,” wailed Lena.
“You’ll burn in Hell girl just for saying that. You are nothing but a filthy harlot,” Mathilda shot back.
“And you will be judged for harming a kind and gentle man who has done nothing but bring good to others,” said Lena. Some who heard this thought there were tears in her voice and down her face from her one good eye.
“You let him defile you,” said Walter with a voice full of hate and judgment.
“I gladly allowed Cornelius love me. I wanted him to love me. I love him and he loves me in turn. He wanted to marry me,” said Lena who was not weeping.
“No respectable man would have you Lena. You worship sin and are nothing but a child of Satan,” said Mathilda.
“Our parents should have drown you at birth,” said Walter, who then slammed the window of his office down, and drew the curtains closed.
Later Walter told several friends in confidence that he thought his sister was involved in Devil Worship.
Lena was rarely out of the sight of either her brother or sister-in-law. When she was alone it was because she was locked up in a small building behind the Carson’s house. One day she managed to get out on her own and get a letter to the post office. She said it was to her brother in San Francisco and that it must be sent. The Post Master thought nothing of the letter, until Walter came bursting into the post office the next day demanding the letter back. By then it was too late. The letter had already been sent.
The next morning Walter and Mathilda were found dead on the banks of the American River.
The babies were found crying in the Carlson home. Lena was locked in the filthy shed behind the house.
Suspicion fell upon Lena, but there was no way such a small woman could have committed such a violent crime upon two people who were obviously healthier and stronger than she was.
On the third day after the murders Charley Carlson and Cornelius Jones came to claim the bodies and take custody of Lena and the Carlson’s small children.
It was then that the truth about Walter and Mathilda came out.
While they were all living in San Francisco Mathilda had sent spies to watch Lena and Cornelius. Lena had gone with Cornelius to his home one afternoon. They made love without the knowledge that someone had been watching through the window. This event was reported back to Mathilda who then reported the event to Walter.
Walter confronted Cornelius and told him that his sister would never be allowed to marry a half Jewish Englishman of questionable parentage.
Walter then sent two men to beat Cornelius to within an inch of his life. The next day Walter and his family were gone, taking Lena with them.
Before they arrived in Folsom, Walter and Mathilda held Lena down and cut off her hair. Next they gouged out her eye with a sharp knife. They then beat her until she was broken and bleeding. Until the day she died she walked with a limp due to their cruelty. They told her that no man would be tempted by her again. They told the people of the town that she was crazy and sick. Anyone could see that just by looking at her.
The murderers were never found. Charley and his wife adopted the two babies. Lena and Cornelius were married and lived a long and happy life together.
To this day some people say that it was both an angel and a demon who worked together to save Lena. The angel took them down and the demon took their souls to Hell. Some say through the morning fog they can still see the shadows of a winged figure and a man with a long thin tail walking along the riverbank.
Or it could have been a madman traveling through. We will never know.
~ Juliette aka Vampire Maman
Note: Over the years, always in December, there have also been sightings of a beautiful woman with no eyes walking along the edge of Lake Natoma, where the American River flows deep underneath between the dams, her skirts dragging along the edge of the water. It is said she cries for the babies she’ll never see again. You never know what ghosts you’ll see on cold December nights. You never know.