When the word “vampire” is mentioned, people have a very vivid image in their mind. To some, it’s the hideously twisted form of Nosferatu. To others, the murderous charm of Christopher Lee. To younger readers, perhaps it may be the young romantic Edward Cullen of the Twilight franchise. However, vampirism is not something limited to fiction, with the legends surrounding Countess Elizabeth Báthory and modern-day vampire cults showing that blood-drinking has a very real and very long human history.
As of 2010, over 50,000 people have appeared in psychiatric literature who were said to be obsessed with drinking blood. The condition is popularly known as Renfield’s syndrome. Clinical vampirism is rarely described and usually forms part of a more conventional psychiatric diagnosis such as schizophrenia or paraphilia. While the majority of those with the condition are seemingly able to control their desires or have sought adequate treatment, several serial killers have utilised blood drinking in their modus operandi, including the notorious Peter Kürten and Richard Chase.
Into these legends and the truth behind them comes Lilly Lindeström. Some would have us believe that the case is one that shows real vampires are still at work in Europe, others that it is one of a deranged killer, another potential Peter Kürten style murderer. However, the truth might just be that the killing was neither of these things and that the killing of Lilly Lindeström has become more myth than reality.
It was on May 4, 1932, that Minnie Jansson became concerned for the wellbeing of her friend, Lilly Lindeström. Both women were prostitutes in the Atlas area of Stockholm and Jansson hadn’t seen or heard from Lilly for three days, despite attempts to telephone her and frantic knocks on her door. Known as “the Call Girl”, a pun on her lifestyle and the fact she was the only telephone owner in the building, Lindeström had been born in Malmö on August 29, 1900. She had married young and divorced almost as quickly, moving to Stockholm at the age of 22.
While the 1920s were a time of optimism and opportunity, the Great Depression of the 1930s turned many lives on their head, not least that of Lilly Lindeström. Forced into prostitution through the harshness of the times, Lilly had been escorting since April of 1931. She did well for herself, avoiding the streets and instead utilised her telephone to make bookings out of the perceived safety of her flat. She was known to police, yet remained a popular figure with those who knew her. She had enough money to buy then luxury items such as a radio and even managed to purchase clothes on credit at local stores.
Lilly’s life seemed stable and even prosperous, considering the times she lived in. Her circumstance allowed a certain amount of leisure time and both Lilly and Minnie had discussed their evening plans to attend celebrations at Djurgården. This island forms part of the Royal National Park. Their conversation was interrupted when Lilly received a strange call on this same phone, asking for a liaison. Minnie would later describe the voice as sounding “well-behaved” and like “a nice and sober gentleman”. It was April 30, known in Sweden as Walpurgis night.
“Can you receive me if I come in a while?”
“Yes, are you far away?”
“No, I’m very close. I’m coming soon.”
Conversation as recanted by Minnie Jansson
An abbreviation of Saint Walpurgis Night, Walpurgis Night is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga. It is celebrated on the night on the night of April 30 and into May 1. Walpurga was heralded by German Christians for his battles against pests and disease, also being noted hailed for his fight against witchcraft. Christians would thus pray for his intervention against witches and warlocks and people still light bonfires to ward off evil on Saint Walpurga’s Eve. In Sweden, the festival is a public event and marks the arrival of spring. Communal events include the lighting of bonfires, choral singing and speeches by local celebrities to welcome the coming of the new season.
“May 1 is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls.”
Sir James George Frazer — The Golden Bough
Minnie had left the building to fetch some milk and after returning around 7pm, found Lilly was entertaining the client in her cramped apartment. She came down to Jansson twice to enquire about condoms and confirmed it was the same man as the one on the telephone. She was nude except for a coat. It was the last Minnie had heard from her friend. At precisely 9pm, Minnie knocked on her door asking if she wished to visit the bonfire at Djurgården as planned. There was no answer. Minnie assumed she had left with her client and headed out but couldn’t spot her friend anywhere at the bonfire. Returning home, Minnie tried her door again. Still no answer.
After a male friend also failed to get in touch, the duo went to Ruth Jonsson, who, alongside her husband, were the landlords of the building. Together, they went to visit Emma Lundgren, another friend of Lilly. Emma, likewise, hadn’t seen Lilly since Walpurgis Night and noted that Lilly had failed to meet with her as planned on May 2. Given the ever-present threats from dangerous clients, they decided to contact the police on the 4th. Officer Nordström of the Stockholm Police was first on the scene and, failing to get an answer at the door, called the fire department to force an entry. What they found when they broke into the apartment would shock Sweden — Lilly Lindeström had been murdered.
Lying face down on an ottoman, her clothes were folded neatly on a chair next to her naked corpse, and three sofa cushions were stacked on top of the body. The apartment was tidy and cleaned. She had suffered severe trauma to the head from three massive blows, and had already been dead for two to three days by the time the body was discovered. Working at the scene, the police district doctor, Dr Ternell, believed the murder weapon was a crowbar, pipe, or other similar heavy metal object and Lilly had been attacked from behind, likely killing her instantly. She may have been assaulted while engaged in a sex act. A blood-soaked tea-towel was found in the kitchen, and friends noted that nothing was missing from the apartment. The killer brought the weapon with him and took it as he left, showing evident premeditation.
Led by police chief Alvar Zetterquist, detectives likely initially believed it was a clear case of another prostitute murdered by her client. However, they were intrigued by the amount of saliva on Lilly’s neck and body, not to mention the fact that Lilly had allegedly somehow been exsanguinated — drained of blood. There was only a little amount of blood at the scene, with none on the walls, furnishings or floor and no noticeable puncture pounds to the body. Despite legends, a gravy ladle “used to drink her blood” was not found at the scene, with the object entering the narrative much later.
The Atlas neighbourhood was heavily industrialised, with the entire area being named after the industrial company Atlas AB whose workshops littered the area. The flats here were small and dark, with the area adjoining Sankt Eriksplan (Saint Erik’s Plaza). The Plaza today has undergone significant gentrification with apartment prices being among the most expensive in Stockholm. Yet, in the early 20th century Saint Erik’s Plaza was considered a “prostitute’s stroll” where liaisons would be arranged with punters. Adding immediate weight to the theory that Lindeström had fallen prey to one of her clients was the fact that a condom was found protruding from the victim’s anus, with three other wrappers found in the bin. The killer had taken the rest of the pack that Minnie had given her friend.
Working on this basis, all of Lilly’s regular clients were interviewed with extensive inquiries made in Sankt Eriksplan. Police worked through a series of business cards from men in her apartment, with little expectation of a result given how thorough the killer had been at the crime scene. All regular clients were meanwhile ruled out, with no leads forthcoming.
There were no witnesses to anyone being seen at the apartment after the believed time of death, and nobody heard a struggle. Lindeström’s landlady saw five men coming and going prior to this and the fact that Lilly returned to her friend for a second condom leads to speculation that the killer was in fact not the “gentleman” that Minnie had heard on the phone. A suspect who may have been the killer was, however, spotted at Norma’s Cafe in Sankt Eriksplan with a waitress noticing that a man who came in at 9pm brought a porcelain container with him that she knew belonged to Lilly. The man ordered two steak dinners and left.
Interestingly, the morning after the murder, the apartment next door was burgled. A woman was woken at 5am by a young man attempting to access a locked storage closet. The woman screamed, with the man quickly trying to muffle her. Escaping, she ran down the stairs and cried out for the police. However, by the time the nearby patrol officer had reached the apartment, the would-be burglar was gone. He was described as wearing a suit, but no hat and coat, leading to some speculation he was somebody from within the building. Police dismissed the incident as coincidence, noting that no robbery was suspected in the case of Lilly Lindeström.
Six weeks after the killing, a stained ladle was found outside the apartment building, with many believing the stains were blood. It was too light to be the murder weapon. Still, a subsequent story in the newspaper Aftonbladet claimed that it had been utilised to drink the blood of Lindeström. They claimed that the little amount of blood at the scene, with none on the walls, furnishings or floor, had led police to believe that the killer had drunk there using the ladle, brazenly carrying the rest of her blood away. The local press was in an uproar, sensationalist headlines dubbing the killer “the Atlas Vampire” as pressure mounted on the police to catch a suspect. It is worth noting that the ground floor of Lilly Lindeström’s apartment was a restaurant.
These sensationalist headlines came in the wake of the Peter Kürten killings and at the height of the Universal horror craze. Kürten’s crimes had shocked Europe. His 1929 series of macabre sex assaults and killings had won him the nickname of The Vampire of Düsseldorf as he had attempted to drink the blood of his victims. He was executed in July of 1931, just five months after the release of Universal’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. The film is a classic of horror on film, being a cornerstone of cinematic vampire movies. It was both a commercial and critical success. On May 6, 1932, the German movie Vampyr had its premiere. The public was eager to read anything linked to these legends or the monstrous crimes of Kürten. Monsters sold well at the newsstands. The claims of vampirism would be resurrected in 1950 when Aftonbladet interviewed retired investigator John Berg, Berg claiming that the ladle had been found wrapped in the bloody tea-towel at the scene. The sensation started all over again.
Desperate, the police arrested a pimp, Pettersson, after his own wife raised suspicions. Having allegedly been seen covered in blood by his spouse, the police held the man for 10 days. They released him after his alibi checked out with his business partner, yet this was always said to be shaky at best. Meanwhile, a man with whom Lilly had had an affair by the name of Ragnar Nilsson was likewise eliminated. There was virtually no clues to go on. Nothing had been stolen from the apartment, and the killer had left nothing behind. While there were fingerprints, there were many sets, and they were impossible to identify. Lilly’s address book turned up nothing and what other evidence existed was useless, with DNA evidence on the saliva and condom decades away from being a possibly utilised as a clue.
Police were hopeful that the killer may have an attack of conscience and come forward, but also feared that this was unlikely to have been the murderers first killing, nor his last. Concerned they were dealing with a serial killer, they waited for him to strike again, fearing for an innocent life somewhere in Stockholm, but hopeful that he may yield more clues next time. The days turned into weeks and soon months and years. The “Atlas Vampire” seemingly never struck again.
In the decades since the brutal killing, many theories have emerged surrounding what may have happened in that tiny Stockholm room. Many believe that, if the claims of exsanguination are correct, few men would have had the knowledge to make such an effective and clean evacuation of blood. Given that “almost all” of Lilly Lindeström’s blood had apparently been expelled, the killer would have needed to be both bold in carrying it through the streets and equally need a place to store it. Equally, the risk of clotting would require speed, suggesting perhaps a culprit within the same building. With no puncture wounds on the body, however, there is significant doubt as to the veracity of the claim. Speaking on the Swedish TV show Crime of the Week in 2012, criminologist and author Leif GW Persson stated that he doesn’t believe that the body was in-fact exsanguinated. He also noted that the stains on the ladle were never positively identified as blood. Persson believes that Lindeström knew her killer.
Another theory that was popularised was that the killer may have been a police officer or somehow otherwise involved in police work, with the murder weapon being a police baton. The scene was effectively scrubbed of clues long before the police became busy. While DNA evidence was left, nobody believed it would be of any use at the time.
With little evidence ever being found in the case and the “Atlas Vampire” having seemingly never struck again, there is little hope of ever finding out the truth behind the killing of Lilly Lindeström. While there may be some truth somewhere in the body being drained of blood, the retellings of the Lindeström murder have often lost sight of the story at the core. They focus on the myths of vampirism rather than on the tragedy of Lilly Lindeström herself. It is not a story of a charming and suave Christopher Lee, one charged with eroticism and passion. Nor is it a myth. It is the story of a woman, fallen on hard times, who was bludgeoned to death while entertaining a client, likely for a sexual thrill. While not the answer many seek, the sad truth is, sensationalism sells just as well today as it did in 1932. Lilly’s Lindeström body was returned to Malmö and buried in the Eastern Cemetery of the city. She never received justice and deserved more than being a damsel in yet another 1930s vampire story.
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