Rockport’s Murder Mystery: Going to the Grave

By: Courtney Scott

In less than one week, Rockport will host its annual Motif No. 1 Day, a festival of the arts that honors the most painted structure in the nation. Tourists will flood to the celebration, snap some photos, buy some artwork, and leave with cheerful memories of this picturesque New England town.

But if only they knew, if only anyone knew, that Motif No. 1 is not the only thing in Rockport that has gone down in history, that the town was not always so picturesque, and that at one time the only cheerfulness came from seeing guard dogs well-fed and state troopers patrolling the streets with a watchful eye.

Few are alive today who can recall the gruesome double murder investigation that first plagued the town of Rockport 83 years ago on May 21, 1932, and continued to terrorize its residents for generations to come. Even fewer are willing to relive the memories that took two lives and endangered the livelihood of an entire town.

The infamous Rockport Murder Mystery has been blotted out of history, so much so that the only remaining proof of the murders are some hard-to-find, even harder-to-read newspaper accounts, and some hair, skull fragments, and a pair of reading glasses. The evidence rests inside the Rockport police station in a bent-up, beat-in tin metal box, so concealed that some of the police officers don’t even know that it’s there.

Arthur F. Oker, 57 years old in 1932, had called Rockport his home for nearly 25 years. He was a well-respected and honest man with a bristly mustache and wide-rimmed, round glasses. He worked as a tailor at his shop on 77 Main Street, and returned each night to his wife and four children just a few blocks away. Although a native of Finland, he was a member of the Swedish Congregational Church and held a position as church treasurer and lay preacher within the 50-person congregation. He had many friends and few, if any, enemies.

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 21, 1932, Melvin Linder entered Arthur Oker’s tailor shop to get alterations made on his new suit. After a few minutes, he noticed a man come down the steps from the upstairs washroom and sit down in the opposite corner of the shop from he and Oker. The man wore a brown colored top coat and a new straw hat.

At 10:30 a.m., a Miss Margaret Allen walked into the shop to pick up a dress that Oker had fixed. She saw Oker tending to Linder as they fitted his suit, and noted that an unfamiliar man with a straw hat was standing in the opposite corner.

At 11 a.m., Oker stepped outside, looked up and down Main Street, and re-entered his shop. At 11:15, a letter carrier delivered a small package to Oker and observed two men in his company, one of which was the unknown man in the straw hat. The carrier left, and within 15 minutes somebody drew the green shades down over the door and locked it from the inside.

Oker’s wife, Mrs. Ida Oker, telephoned the store several times between 12:05 and 12:25 p.m., but her husband never picked up the phone.

Around 12:25, Police Officer Andrew Stevens, curious from seeing the blinds drawn on the door, peered through the cluttered store window and caught a glimpse of Oker bent over his counter, talking to the same man in the brown top coat and straw hat. At 12:30, Oker’s son, 21-year-old Rudolph Oker, passed by the shop on his way to get groceries. He rattled the locked door and, upon receiving no answer, resolved to fetch the goods, drop them off at home and return with a spare key.

While young Oker was gone, a woman residing across the street looked out her window and saw a man nearly six feet tall exit the tailor shop, wearing a brown top coat and straw hat with his head bowed as he walked up the street.

Rudolph Oker returned 10 minutes later, entered the shop, and found his father face-down on the floor in a pool of blood. His skull was cracked from his forehead to his crown, and the back of his head was crushed so badly that there were holes in his skull. The little fingers on both of his hands were nearly severed from trying to protect his head, his false teeth were on the floor and his glasses had been thrown from his face.

Oker’s safe was open, empty and spattered with blood, as were his outturned pockets. A line under the letter “D” was erased from Oker’s cashbook for the day’s date. The small package that had been delivered just an hour earlier was missing, and the murder weapon was nowhere in sight.

Police rushed to the scene and loaded Oker into an ambulance, but he died in transit just a few moments later at 12:55 p.m. Physicians later said that the severity of Oker’s wounds indicated that he would have lasted 30 minutes, at most, after the attack. This places the time of the murder at 12:25 or in the few minutes that followed, which means that if Rudolph Oker had come with keys to the shop in his first passing, he likely would have witnessed the attack on his father.

At about 1 p.m. on the same day, police received tips that a man in a top coat and soft hat sped through nearby streets in a tan colored coupe with a rumble seat, headed in the Gloucester direction. However, there were no officers patrolling at the time, and the coupe was unable to be traced.

Photo from Historical Archives.

In the days following the murder, the Gloucester Daily Times and the Boston Herald released a slew of articles in an attempt to support police efforts and encourage citizens to come forward with information. However, aside from the initial timeline, all other details of the murder have fallen into murky waters as deep as the abandoned quarries in which the murder weapon is thought to reside.

For instance, the murder weapon that was adamantly suspected to be a heavy pair of tailor’s shears missing from Oker’s shop, later shifted to that of a small axe when not one, but two pairs of Oker’s shears were returned from friends who had borrowed them.

Additionally, the mysterious package delivered to Oker’s shop by the postal carrier on the day of the murder was later identified as a delivery of silk, yet it was never found. The carrier also reported that two unknown men were with Oker at the time of his delivery, although only one unfamiliar face was present just 30 minutes earlier while Melvin Linder was getting his suit adjusted.

It was then reported, however, that Linder was unavailable to identify any sailors that matched the two he claimed to have seen in Oker’s shop the day he was murdered. This supports the carrier’s claim, yet Linder’s account of seeing these sailors were nonexistent in previous reports.

Gloucester Daily Times Archives

Then, on May 28, a police appeal was released in the Gloucester Daily Times asking that the person with the May 21, 11:25 a.m. tailor appointment contact the police. This is despite having already determined that the shop had been locked by this time, following the carrier’s delivery at 11:15.

This is presumably the brown coated man with the straw hat. Photo from Historical Archives.

These are among the many inconsistencies that likely added to the hysteria that enveloped Rockport during the intense Oker investigation. By the first week of June, however, everyone willing to talk had shared their information, and police began to run out of leads. The man in the brown top coat and straw hat faded from the papers as quickly as he emerged. Coverage of the murder dissipated, and the investigation turned quiet, assumably continued internally through the police department.

Rockport slowly recovered from the murder, although Oker’s presence was missed within the community. His funeral garnered the highest attendance in Rockport’s history as nearly 100 cars lined Granite Street to attend the service at the Swedish Congregational Church.

A photo of Arthur Oker, and newspapermen pooling for evidence in the now water-filled quarries around town. Photo from Historical Archives.

Still, few talked of the brutal murder. Despite the police regarding the assailant as known to Oker and unknown to Rockport, a noon-time murder, in the center of town, with a killer gone free was not taken lightly by anyone within the 4,000-person community.

No one talked of the murder, that is, until nearly 18 months later on October 31, 1933. Twenty attendants of the Swedish Congregational Church held a surprise party for Pastor Albert M. Johansen at his home in Pigeon Cove, to celebrate his two years of service to the church. But amidst the celebration, Mrs. Augusta Johnson, a humble widow who attended many church functions, announced to the gathering that she knew more about the Oker murder than she had let on. She said that she planned to take the information to the police the next day if the murderer didn’t turn himself in.

It is not clear whether or not Johnson had real intentions of going to the police. But in any case, she never got the chance.

At 10:30 p.m. on October 31, congregation members August Olson and his son, 22 year-old Warren Olson, drove Augusta Johnson back to her home at 1, Oakland Avenue in Pigeon Cove.

At 6:00 a.m. on November 1, August Olson exited his home just 30 feet from Johnson’s, met with a few other residents and drove to Lynn for work, noticing nothing out of the ordinary in the quiet morning hours.

At 8:20 a.m., a neighbor passed Johnson’s home and saw smoke coming from the second floor of the house. He sounded the fire alarm and alerted young Warren Olson, who climbed through the pantry window of Johnson’s house after finding every other point of entry locked tight. He bolted to the source of the fire- the bedroom- where he found Augusta Johnson laying prone on the bed, stripped and engulfed in flames.

Olson wrapped a wet towel around his head and used another to bat down the flames until firemen arrived. Police rushed to the scene and, upon seeing the body, immediately opened an investigation. Not only had Johnson been murdered and her bed set on fire, but her skull was cracked from the top of her head to her left ear. A heavy instrument with a sharp edge had been used to bring multiple blows down on her head, killing her within minutes.

Further investigation revealed that Johnson likely heard her attacker entering the house, as she had turned on the lights and met him in the hallway. He had cut a panel of glass out of the pantry window, flipped the lock, and crawled in. His attack on Johnson began in the hallway and ended somewhere between the hall and the bedroom. An alarm clock on the bedside stand was frozen at 5:48 a.m., and as Johnson’s lungs had inhaled no smoke, her time of death was determined as 5:00 a.m., shortly after the attacker set fire to her bed and fled the scene.

The release of Johnson’s death sent Rockport into yet another state of panic. Police admitted that, just as with Oker, the murderer must have been very familiar with Johnson and the layout of her home. Detectives from the Oker case were brought back, as were state photographers and fingerprint specialists. A search ensued in an effort to locate a diamond ring and its container that went missing from Johnson’s bedside. Blood-soaked newspapers found in a nearby meadow were sent to the state chemist’s laboratory. Boys scoured the town for the murder weapon, men purchased guns and guard dogs, and women stayed home and worried over their sons and husbands.

A release in the November 2 Gloucester Times pictured Johnson’s home, with an arrow showing her bedroom where the smoke was first seen.

A few days passed with no prominent arrests, but the investigation continued with determined force. Fingerprints from the Johnson murder failed to match any obtained in Oker’s shop, however police maintained belief that the two victims were killed by the same hands. The November 6 edition of the Gloucester Daily Times reported that officials were continually gathering new information, and an arrest was soon expected. “The psychology of the fiend is such,” said the police, “that he is conceited enough to believe himself secure, and it is this over-confidence which may be the means of his undoing.”

This confident claim, however, became meaningless as the next few days produced no results and, again, false leads served only to muddy the waters of the double murder mystery. Only eight male members of the Swedish Congregational Church were present at the October 31 celebration, and Pastor Johansen determinedly vouched for all of them. A stone-cutter’s hammer was announced, and then denounced, as a potential murder weapon. Neither the diamond ring, nor its jewelry box, were able to be located.

Pastor Johansen, of the Swedish Congregational Church, was fingerprinted and interrogated during the investigation because the church was the strongest connection between Oker and Johnson. Photo from Historical Archives.

Police changed their view of both murders from that of a crime of passion to one of careful planning and consideration, but made little progress in proving this. An accomplice was added into the equation of the murders to account for the stealthy escape of the attacker. Yet a suspicious man who lusted after Johnson, and who on multiple accounts was found spying on her from the pantry window in the early hours of the morning, was never publicly pursued.

About a week after the murder, the police issued a house-to-house sweep of the Sheep Pasture neighborhood around Johnson’s home. Three days later it was extended to all of Sandy Bay. The investigation had four detectives working around the clock, and 35 state troopers were brought in from Framingham, Bridgewater and even Cape Cod to assist in conducting the search.

Residents cooperated with the police, but few were able, or perhaps willing, to shed new light on the investigation. The District Attorney announced the impending arrest of a man who, “talked so much as to indicate that he was almost an eyewitness to the crime,” but the arrest was never reported. In the coming weeks, nearly all of the state troopers returned to their respective posts, as did two of the four detectives. Life in Rockport slowly returned to normalcy once again, for all but those left to silently carry on the murder investigation.

Still, though, an unwritten law settled like a dense fog over the town of Rockport. No one dared to speak of the murders in public, yet rumors of whodunit spread through whispers in the hushed corners of private spaces. “Didn’t that August Olson always have a short temper?” “Isn’t it curious that his son, Warren, lived across the street from Augusta Johnson, and also worked just one door down from Oker’s tailor shop?” “What of that Pastor Johansen, who left town shortly after Johnson’s death?” “And the town druggist, was he not suspicious, too?” “And it was just a rumor that Oker was having an affair with someone else in the Swedish congregation, right?”

Some locals began to allude to the events as the “Full of the Moon Murders,” from the full moon that hung in the sky on both accounts. They nicknamed the attacker the “Rockport Maniac,” and he was thought to be compelled by some unexplainable, supernatural force to slay Oker and Johnson before regaining his sanity and silently slipping back into the Rockport community. These delirious views were supported by mysterious slayings of wild animals, as well as a vicious slaughter of farm animals at Johnson’s sister’s farm just two days after the one-year anniversary of her death.

The murder weapon was never found. The motive was never pronounced. The murderer never came forward. When the police chief retired in 1944, he ordered that all evidence of the case be tossed into the water-filled granite quarries. Many still claimed to know who committed the deeds, but fear held a stronger claim on their throats than their own voices. And it still does.

Halibut Point State Park, just one of the quarry sites that are now filled with hundreds of feet of water and muddy sludge.

During the time of the murders, Police Officer James T. Quinn said, “They will never be marked closed as long as I live. Some day someone will talk or the murderer will make a slip. I’ll be around when that occurs.”

But the murderer never made a slip. Officer Quinn died in 1974, and the case is still marked as open today. He knew who committed the murders, said his grandson, Officer Mark Rowe. He wouldn’t tell Mark, though. Mark said, “I know who did it because I talked to the judge.”

Officer Mark Rowe displaying the only evidence that remains from the double murder investigation.

Walter Julian, Rockport’s 91 year-old retired barber, knows who did it, too. Although a native of Brookline, Julian’s father-in-law had mended shoes in his shop just two doors down from Oker. Julian is done talking, though. He won’t even pick up the phone, and his wife isn’t about to give him a nudge, either. She said, “At this point, there’s nothing to tell that hasn’t already been said.”

That is, nothing but the name of the man who did it.

Bradley Smith, another 90-something-year-old resident of Rockport, was a careless young boy at the time of the murders. He recalls running up and down the streets, snooping for clues while staying out of site from “the woman in the window,” that is, the same woman who saw the brown coated man with the straw hat leaving Oker’s shop near the time of the attack.

Oker’s tailor shop, 77 Main Street, was transformed into a coin operated laundry before reaching its current state as an art gallery.

“I think I must’ve interviewed every kid in town,” he said, “but it was like someone closed the door,” Smith said.

Smith believes that the murderer slipped out of a smuggler’s tunnel that connected Oker’s shop to Front Beach. A big cabinet in the basement, he said, stood in front of the secret tunnel that the police supposedly found days later. Smith believes the murderer traveled to Rockport on the same ship as Oker, and that the two quarreled over a religious debate. This would provide a much-needed motive, however, Smith also recalled Oker as the town cobbler, rather than the tailor, and could remember neither his age at the time of the murders nor the dates that they occurred.

Gloucester police investigating an underground tunnel similar to that which Bradley believes the murderer escaped through. Photo from Historical Archives.

And then there was Roger Martin, Oker’s grandson who was seven years old when his grandfather was killed. Martin passed away just two months ago on March 14, but yes, he knew who did it, too, although he said he could never prove it. He had even seen the man at a town event in the late 1990’s, still alive and still living in Rockport.

All of these men hold the name of the murderer on the tips of their tongues. But, at the same time, not every man is withholding the same name. The rumors that spread during the fear-gripping chaos of the murders has created a myriad of possibilities, but when nobody’s talking it’s impossible to draw any conclusions. And now, just as all evidence has gone to the sea, all hearsay will soon go to the grave, and Rockport’s Murder Mystery will become nothing but a ghost-written legend.

The grave of Augusta Johnson, Beech Grove Cemetery, Rockport.

Just your typical millennial. Loving life, instagram and all things travel.

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