The Lady of the Dunes
Known as the ‘holy grail’ of cold cases, our victim finally has a name
Facial reconstruction of the Lady of the Dunes via Wikimedia Commons
The Lady of the Dunes case has puzzled local law enforcement and web sleuths across the globe for the past four decades. However, in 2015, the case was brought to the forefront of popular culture when author Joe Hill believed he saw the woman on screen.
The woman was found beneath long grass by a young girl walking her dog on the 26th of July 1974 in the Race Point Dunes of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She was nude and looked to have been sunbathing when she was killed, police would later find out, between one to three weeks earlier.
Laid face down on a green blanket, the woman could only be described as aged between twenty-five and 35 years old and had long red hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her minimal clothing — Wrangler jeans and a blue bandana — was propped under her head, being used as a pillow.
The body via Provincetown Police Department
Though there were no signs of a struggle, her hands had been cut off, and her head had almost been removed from her body. During her autopsy, it was revealed that much of her expensive ‘New York style’ dental work had been eradicated, leaving shards of teeth behind, and her head had been crushed on one side. She also had a burger and fries in her stomach, alluding to a visit into the nearby town.
However, the most disturbing realisation was that the woman had been attacked by someone lying next to her due to the angle of the blow to her head, and she had likely been raped after her murder.
An extensive search began, and police poured over the area alongside volunteers. Two sets of footprints had been found at the scene, alongside a set of tyre tracks around 50 yards from the woman’s body. The area was a park, so the licence plates of everyone who’d visited at the time were recorded. However, there was no sign of the woman arriving at the park, nor could they work out how she got to such a remote site.
Investigators looked through hundreds of books containing missing women and questioned the vehicle owners in the area at the time. But, despite the hunt for more information, the case soon went cold.
It wasn’t until five years later when the first facial reconstruction of the woman’s face was created. Over the years, the Lady of the Dunes’ body was exhumed several times, each wanting something else from her.
In March 2000, her DNA was finally taken and added to databases, and in May 2010, a scan was taken of her skull to create a computer-generated image, paid for by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Facial reconstruction via NCMEC
For a long time, her skull sat on Provincetown’s chief of police’s desk as a macabre paperweight, hoping to find a clue with new technology or perhaps to remind him that the case was still unsolved.
Over the years, several leads in the case were investigated, including a tip in 1987, when a woman told police that her father had strangled a woman in 1972. Unfortunately, her body was never found.
Another woman from Boston told police that the Lady of the Dunes looked like her sister who went missing in 1974. The woman wasn’t her sister, and nor was she escaped criminal Rory Gene Kesinger, who broke out of jail in 1973 from Plymouth County in Massachusetts, though the resemblance was uncanny.
Others came forward, claiming their mother, daughter, or wife was in fact the unidentified woman, but none ever matched the DNA taken from her body.
Another theory was that Whitey Bulger had her killed, as the Irish mob boss removed his victim’s teeth, just how the woman was found. He’d been seen with a similar-looking woman around the same time of the murder, though she was never identified. Though the story of gang killings was exciting, Bulger was never considered a formal suspect and the tall tale continued to be just that.
In 2000, serial killer Hadden Clark confessed to another inmate that he’d murdered the Lady of the Dunes, later telling The Boston Globe, “I could have told the police what her name was, but after they beat the shit out of me, I wasn’t going to tell them shit. … This murder is still unsolved and what the police are looking for is in my grandfather’s garden.”
Four years later, despite Clark’s paranoid schizophrenia, he later sent a letter to a friend with a drawing of a woman lying on her stomach and a map of where he believed he’d buried her in Cape Cod.
The theories died down, but years later, the story of the unidentified woman would once more be at the forefront of people’s minds.
During the summer of 2015, author Joe Hill attended an anniversary showing of the box office hit Jaws. Less than an hour into the movie, Hill saw something on the screen that no one else — not even police — had noticed; a woman who looked like the composite sketch in a blue bandana.
The memory of this particular case was ripe in Hill’s mind, as he’d been watching an episode of Haunting Evidence, which was about the Lady of the Dunes mystery. It included the facial reconstructions made years earlier and the particular items of clothing found under her head.
“I felt I had seen ‘Lady of the Dunes,’ that her face had come up out of the crowd at me,” Hill told The Washington Post. “It came and went in a moment, and there was no rewind button.”
Jaws was filmed around 100 miles from where the Lady of the Dunes was discovered, but Hill’s theory was still eventually passed on to Provincetown Police Department, no matter how farfetched it seemed.
“I’ve heard it said that everyone who was out on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974 appears in the movie ‘Jaws,’” he said. “I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but there’s a nugget of truth. People knew there were movie stars on Martha’s Vineyard. The possibility that a person would make a stop on the island and appear in the movie is not unreasonable.”
Hill wasn’t the only one enthralled by the idea that the woman in Jaws could also be one of Massachusetts’ oldest cold cases. His father, horror writer Stephen King, enjoyed the view that something with such horrific connotations could be trapped in film forever.
“Everyone in my family likes a good bit of weird, unsettling Americana,” said Joe Hillstrom King, who now has a podcast on Wondery titled, Inside Jaws.
So, did the author crack the case of the Lady of the Dunes? Perhaps we’ll never know. It’s possible that whoever killed the woman is no longer alive, and the idea of justice is now long gone. However, the puzzle of who this woman was has kept many web sleuths awake for the past four decades.
Hill concluded his interview in The Washington Post perfectly.
“Two astonishing things happened on Cape Cod in the summer of 1974,” he said. “One is that Steven Spielberg filmed ‘Jaws,’ and other is that someone murdered this woman in the dunes outside Provincetown and got away with it. Anything that stirs people’s memories could potentially be productive.”
The Lady of the Dunes was laid to rest in Saint Peters Cemetery in Provincetown, Mass. She continues to receive flowers from strangers.
On the 31st October 2022, the Lady of the Dunes was identified as 37 year old Ruth Marie Terry.
Joseph Bonavolonta from the Boston branch of the FBI said, “While we have identified Ruth as the victim of this horrific murder, it does not ease the pain for her family — nothing can. But hopefully, they answer some questions while we continue to look for her killer.”
https://www.namus.gov/UnidentifiedPersons/Case#/11840 https://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20190414/new-look-at-old-lady-of-dunes-mystery https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/08/07/a-tantalizing-theory-from-stephen-kings-son-shark-thriller-jaws-holds-the-clue-to-an-unsolved-1974-murder/ https://allthatsinteresting.com/lady-of-the-dunes