The Murder That Inspired Twin Peaks
Hazel Drew’s death remains unsolved, unlike her on-screen counterpart.
In the summer of 1908, the resort town of Sand Lake in Rensselaer County, New York was busy. The usual population of around 2,000 made way for holidaymakers and the July temperature was climbing. However, the visiting families would soon be joined by reporters and investigators, when the body of a woman turned up in Teal’s Pond.
Hazel Drew via Times Union courtesy of Bob Moore, Sand Lake Historian
Twenty-year-old Hazel Drew was born on a farm, in East Poestenkill. At fourteen, she left to work in the home of an affluent family, eventually becoming a governess. Described as fair, blue-eyed and beautiful, the young woman worked hard and was liked by everyone.
Hazel was last seen four days earlier by Frank Smith, a teenager who worked at a nearby farm and Rudolph Gundrum, a charcoal peddler in his mid-thirties. Around 7.30 pm, Frank had hailed Rudolph for a ride in his wagon and the two of them saw Hazel for the last time.
Frank had an unrequited love for the young woman, whose appearance and personality lured many young suitors, wanting to get to know her, and she was popular around the town.
When Hazel was found, she was floating face down in the river. She was bloated and her skull had been crushed by an unidentified object. Her lungs were empty of water, meaning she was dead before she hit the lake and she was unrecognisable due to being in the water for four days.
Hazel was eventually identified by her gold fillings and clothing, and as the investigation into her death began, the details of her life started to come to light.
Just days before her murder, Hazel had resigned from her position at the mayor’s home. Her reason remains unknown, but she was given the rest of her pay for the time she’d worked and she left the house. She told relatives that she’d planned to travel but her exact movements were never revealed.
Hazel was also living well outside of her means. She was travelling first-class into New York city and to Rhode Island, dining at expensive restaurants and staying in luxury hotels. Her new clothing was also far too expensive for a woman who worked as house staff and earned $3 a week.
According to her friends and family, there wasn’t a man in Hazel’s life, but they likely knew more than they were saying. Hazel’s aunt refused to help the police and told many of Hazel’s friends to do the same.
However, when questioned, Hazel’s friend Carrie Weaver told investigators that Hazel had a way to make her money go further than most people, and she’d likely saved her earnings.
In May, just a few months earlier, Carrie and Hazel took a trip to New York where they attended the theatre, ate at lavish restaurants and stayed at a boarding house, despite Hazel losing her purse. Carrie said that the pair never met any men while they were there, but Hazel had been to the city earlier in the month, on her own.
On the way home from New York, Hazel told her friend that she was going to spend the 4th of July holiday at Lake George, presumably with a man. When Independence Day weekend came, Hazel didn’t go to the lake and instead spent the holiday with her aunt.
Detectives searched through Hazel’s minimal belongings and found a number of postcards and letters from friends. There was also correspondence from a man known as C.E.S. The six letters he wrote were loving;
“You’re [sic] merry smile and twinkling eyes torture me. Your face haunts me. Why can’t I be contented again? You have stolen my liberty, please don’t forget a promise to write. When I reach Albany again, I will meet you at the tavern. I must see you soon, or I’ll die of starvation.”
Hazel’s friends and family told investigators that they didn’t know who C.E.S was and he was never identified. However, on the 6th of July, Hazel was seen waiting for a young, tall man at the train station. The witness claimed the man had very controlling behaviour over Hazel, but again, he was never identified.
Investigators had few leads to go on in the murder case that was beginning to capture the nation.
Article clipping via The Washington Post
Frank Smith was initially a suspect in the case because of his secret love for Hazel. The teenager was described as “dimwitted” and an easy suspect in the case. However, Frank had an alibi and multiple witnesses for the night of the murder and was quickly ruled out.
Another suspect in the death was Hazel’s uncle William Taylor. He owned a nearby farm and although he was described as “odd”, there was no evidence that he’d killed his niece and he was also released without charge.
Investigators had heard rumours about a dentist that Hazel was involved with, and according to The Evening Word, inquiries into thirty to forty dentists throughout Troy, New York began. According to Hazel’s friend, Mina Jones, the dentist had asked for Hazel’s hand in marriage but his name wasn’t known.
According to Mina, Hazel was also attacked twice by a man a long time ago, and she managed to escape. He was never caught.
Other people of interest included the real-life version of Richard Beymer’s character in Twin Peaks, who lived in a nearby mansion and solicited orgies. He was initially suspected but on the night that Hazel died, screams were coming from the home, implying that the Albany millionaire was home.
Police spoke to Hazel’s brother, Willie, who told them that he believed that when she took her last walk down Taborton Road, she was going to the farm he was working at to say goodbye to him. He said she would never leave without seeing him, and there was no other reason for her to be travelling down that specific road.
A grand jury eventually assembled, where the witnesses who’d seen Hazel on the day of her murder and the days prior were brought in to give their accounts of what they’d seen. There was no forensic evidence relating to any suspects, and the investigation went cold.
Several decades later and 160 miles away, Mark Frost had an idea brewing. Having spent his early years vacationing in the area where Hazel’s murder was infamous, his grandmother had used her death as a cautionary tale. He and David Lynch eventually used Hazel’s death as inspiration for Twin Peaks, the story of a woman whose body is found by the shore of a lake. Speaking to The Washington Post, Frost said;
“It was the notion of this girl’s body being found on the edge of the water, the mystery remaining unsolved, the multiple suspects, and the kind of cross-cultural and different social classes of people she interacted with. It really struck my fancy”.
Though the similarities between the two women are there, the road forks at the end of their stories. Laura Palmer’s killed is eventually discovered but for Hazel Drew, there is still no resolution.