Monday, April 8, 2024

True Crime Reporting

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


On March 15, 1964, 12-year-old Mary Theresa Simpson went missing after heading home from her cousin’s house. After a few hours of waiting, her father called the police. For the next few days, the police combed the city looking for her. On March 19th, a trio of hikers stumbled across her body in a wooded area just off of Combs Hill Road in Southport. 

Mary Theresa Simpson

 This March, I received multiple research requests about her murder from self-identified true crime enthusiasts.

People’s fascination with true crime is nothing new. Beginning in the 1500s, British publishers began printing thousands of pamphlets and broadsides describing the exploits of various criminals. The publications tended to focus on the gory details of especially violent or unusual crimes and often carried strong moralizing crime-doesn’t-pay messages regarding the criminals’ eventual comeuppance. By the 1700s, America had its own criminals and presses with which to write about them. Newspapers provided readers with minute-by-minute accounts of crimes, manhunts, and trials as they unfolded.

The 21st century is no less interested in true crime than our ancestors, although today the format is a bit different. TV documentaries about crime and criminals first gained popularity in the 1980s. Hits shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted, which presented new, real-life, stories each week, captivated audiences. In 2020, the streaming platform Netflix brought Unsolved Mysteries back. After the success of their documentary series Making a Murderer (2015), Netflix quickly became the king of the true crime docuseries with over 11 shows focusing on different cases.

True crime podcasts got their start in 2014 with Serial, the first season of which focused on the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. The podcast was an instant hit. Since its release, it has been downloaded 340 million times, making it the most downloaded podcast in the world. Its popularity spawned literally hundreds of copycats.

In US, women make up 73% of consumers of digital true crime media. Studies show that people who listen to true crime are more likely to be afraid of being victimized themselves, although it is unclear if that is a result of consuming true crime or the reason they seek it out. There are numerous complaints against true crime. The genre has been criticized for the way third parties make money off of other people’s trauma, often re-traumatizing them in the process. Some works blend actual facts with fictional elements and rampant speculation in ways that can give audiences distorted views of the case.

The true crime genre isn’t all bad. The first season of Serial, for example, helped shine a light on a miscarriage of justice that lead to a man being released from prison. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted have actually helped to solve crimes. The original run of Unsolved Mysteries helped spark renewed interest that lead to the solving of 260 cold cases. America’s Most Wanted helped lead to the capture of 1,400 wanted fugitives and the recovery of over 60 missing children.

In 1964, the local press gave extensive coverage to Mary Theresa Simpson’s murder. The day after her body was discovered, 50 men, including an Elmira Star-Gazette reporter, did a sweep of the area where her body was found. They uncovered her glasses, several buttons off her blouse, and an assortment of trash. Every part of the search was documented by the reporter’s camera. The newspaper coverage included interviews with her family, a timeline events, search photos, a map of the crime scene, and a detailed description of the girl’s body. In the days following her murder, the Star-Gazette and WELM Radio offered a reward of $1,000 for any information leading to her killer’s arrest.

Search in the area where Mary's body was found


Patrolman Robert Loomis with button found during search

The police were hard at work on the case. They established a joint special task force consisting of officers from the Elmira PD, state police, and Chemung County Sheriff’s Department. Together, the task force interviewed over 300 people across multiple states including some as far away as Arizona. Seven suspects agreed to submit to a lie detector test, but no one was ever charged. After six months, the task force was dissolved. After a year, the reward money fund was donated to the Arctic League in Mary’s honor.

Eight years later in October 1972, the Star-Gazette re-ran the details of the Simpson murder and offered $5,000 for information leading to an arrest. They created a special system for accepting anonymous tips that could still let people collect the reward. Over the next few months, tips flooded in. The Elmira Police Department briefly re-opened the case, but ultimately, nothing came of it. To this day, Mary Theresa Simpson’s murder remains unsolved. 


Star-Gazette's instructions on submitting tips to the secret witness program, 1972

By all accounts, Mary was a shy girl. Her family moved around a lot and she struggled to make friends. She was wary of strangers and once turned down a ride from an uncle because she didn’t know him well. No one except her killer knows how she ended up dead on Combs Hill. Maybe the renewed interest in her case will lead to justice, or at least answers. We can only hope.

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