As we continue to look at some of my pet cases, we’re going to take a look at a case from Wisconsin in 1953. If you’re really into true crime, that date and location may make your ears prick up. We know Ed Gein was actively grave robbing and possibly killing people in the late 1940s and early 1950s in La Crosse and Plainfield. Evelyn Hartley disappeared from La Crosse. It only makes sense that Gein would be considered a suspect. This all is just scratching the surface and there’s so much to get into, so let’s explore.
Who Was Evelyn?
Evelyn Grace Hartley was born on November 21, 1937 in La Crosse County. She had brown hair and blue eyes. She wore glasses and went by the nickname “Evie.” Evelyn was a straight-A student and worked hard to earn those grades. She was often described as studious and well-behaved. She’d gone on a few dates, but did not have an official boyfriend. Evelyn also sang and played piano for the choir at her church. Unfortunately, that’s about all there is about Evelyn’s life prior to her disappearance. A handful of facts that we can shakily construct into a life. Even these facts are fairly difficult to find – Evelyn’s entire legacy is her unsolved disappearance and it seems that who she was as a person slips away a little bit more with each passing year. Evelyn does not deserve that. She deserves to be remembered as a fun-loving, intelligent teenager. She was so much more than what happened on the night of October 24, 1953. Please try to keep that in mind as you read on.
On the night of October 24, 1953, Evelyn had been hired to babysit for a La Crosse State College professor named Viggo Rasmussen. The Rasmussens typically had a regular babysitter, but she had been unavailable that night. Most of the town was unavailable that night – it was the Homecoming game at the local high school. Evelyn’s parents felt comfortable with the arrangement – her father Richard worked with Viggo Rasmussen at the College. It had been agreed upon that Evelyn would call her parents around 8:30 that night for a check-in, just to touch base and make sure everything was okay. Except Evelyn never called her parents that night. Nor did she pick up their frantic calls to the Rasmussen home. Little did the Hartleys know that neither they nor anyone else would ever speak to their daughter again.
In a panic, knowing that his daughter would not ignore the phone for so long unless something was wrong, Richard rushed over to the Rasmussen home, hoping to find Evelyn asleep on the couch or some other innocuous explanation for her silence. What he found at first confused him, and then opened a never ending well of concern in his heart. The living room was trashed. The furniture had been moved around and Evelyn’s books were thrown around. One of her shoes and her glasses, broken, were lying on the floor. Clearly something had happened. Clearly, his daughter had been hurt. Richard circled the house, searching for a way in. But all of the doors and windows were locked – except for one basement window.
It was clear that someone had broken into the house. Several windows, upon further inspection, were found to have prymarks. The basement window’s screen had been pushed in and a small ladder stood below it. There were prints from sneakers found in the basement. And, worse, there was blood smeared near the basement window. Blood that matched Evelyn’s type. Investigators believed Evelyn had been taken through that window and dragged through the yard – there were two pools of blood (also Evelyn’s type) found on the lawn. There was also a bloody handprint on a neighbor’s house.
The best anyone could make of the scene was that someone had broken into the Rasmussen home through the basement, coming up the stairs and taking Evelyn by surprise. There was a violent confrontation there, hence the blood and scattered books and moved furniture. Then the attacker took her out of the house through the basement window, presumably to a car that was either parked or waiting with an accomplice. Police dogs tracked her scent for around two blocks before losing the scent – the reason presumably being that Evelyn had been placed in the car at that point. Based on witness reports, the abduction was believed to have taken place around 7:00 PM.
A notable witness that added substantiality to this reconstruction of events was named Ed Hofer. Ed came forward two days later to report that at about 7:15 PM on the night of the incident, he almost got into a collision with a green, early 1940s model Buick in the Rasmussen’s neighborhood. In the car, he noticed two men and a girl who seemed to be slumped over either in pain or unconscious. He had not made the connection to Evelyn until after reading about her disappearance in the paper.
And then, bloodied pieces of clothing began to pop up outside of La Crosse. First, a bra and pair of underwear soaked in blood were found near a highway 14 underpass. These were not definitively linked to Evelyn, but it is commonly believed that they belonged to her. Next, a pair of Goodrich tennis shoes, size 11, were found southeast of La Crosse, near Coon Valley. The shoes did not show any signs of blood spatter, but the tread pattern on the soles did match prints found at the Rasmussen home. Additionally, the pattern of wear on the soles led investigators to believe that the primary wearer of the shoes often rode a motorcycle known as a Whizzer.
About 80 feet from the shoes, a jacket was discovered. The jacket had blood on both arms and its back, and was cut off at the bottom. It had been crudely re-hemmed with white thread, and had some flecks of base metals on it. The blood on the jacket matched Evelyn’s type, and the texture of the denim was determined to match the smears near the basement window in the Rasmussen home. Meaning that jacket, or one very similar one, was present during the abduction. Based on the characteristics, investigators theorized that the kidnapper worked in some form of construction, possibly as a steeplejack.
The shoes and the jacket were the best bet that the investigators had to solve this case. They paraded their evidence across the state, hoping that someone would recognize them and come forward with their owners name. Lie detector tests were given to many people in the community and at Evelyn’s school. But the trail went cold. In the years since, the police have followed countless leads to their eventual dead ends. No one was ever arrested. No one was ever brought to trial. And Evelyn has never been found. So we have a pretty good idea of what happened in the Rasmussen home that night, but who took Evelyn, and why?
There are really only a few theories in this case, and most of this section will consist of Gein talk. But he should by no means be considered the only suspect. We’ll cover Gein as a suspect first, but there are three other theories I would like to consider after that. The reason this case is so cemented in true crime history is because, as mentioned in the introduction, one of the theories revolved around one of the most infamous killers in the history of the United States. He is best known for robbing the graves of recently deceased women and constructing household items and pieces of clothing from their body parts. Has only two known murder victims – Mary Hogan, who was 54 or 55 at the time of her death, and Bernice Worden, who was 58 at the time of her death. I think this is the sticking point of the theory for me. Ed Gein was fixated on older women, and didn’t start his macabre activities until after his mother died. Evelyn could not be further from his preferred victim type. I do not believe in this theory one bit, but I do think the fact that Evelyn has been so inextricably linked to Gein does demonstrate a phenomena we see in true crime over and over again. We see missing persons and Does being linked to big-name killers with shoestring evidence all the time. Another example is the theory that Maura Murray is a victim of Israel Keyes. We want to believe that there are a handful of highly publicized killers or kidnappers or otherwise bad people responsible for all of the bad things we read about, rather than there being thousands of unheard of criminals, living around us every day. Therefore, the Big Serial Killer must be responsible for the Missing Girl. Because if he didn’t do it…then it could be anyone.
A more likely theory than Gein is that Evelyn was stalked and targeted, either that night specifically or perhaps over an amount of time prior to that night. This is always a possibility when it comes to unsolved murders or missing persons. The unknown creep watching from afar. Maybe it was someone she knew from the neighborhood, or maybe it was someone who saw her around and never even spoke to her. Stalkers are a very real danger – and the scariest part might be that sometimes, the person being stalked has no idea they’re being watched. This theory seems reasonable, but there’s no real evidence for it. Another reasonable theory is that the crime was one of total opportunity. Meaning someone happened upon the house with Evelyn in it without explicitly planning to. This could have happened in a multitude of ways – maybe this person was walking or driving by and saw Evelyn through the windows, or maybe they were out on a walk. We may never know. The point of this theory, though, is that the attack and subsequent events were unplanned.
The final theory I would like to discuss revolves around the family Evelyn was babysitting for that night – maybe they were the true targets, or the person responsible knew they were going to be out of the house that day but did not expect them to leave their child and a babysitter home. The bottom line of this theory is that someone broke in not expecting to find Evelyn or possibly anyone. When they came across her, things got out of hand quickly and the perpetrator likely killed her to silence her as a witness to whatever crime they were in the middle of committing. However, in the confines of this theory, I do not know why they would remove her from the house and not try to stage the scene as a simple burglary. Again, I think this one is possible, but there’s no real evidence pointing towards it.
If I were to pick one theory based on the evidence, I think I would have to go with Evelyn being the target. She was a young girl, defenseless and alone. The house was not missing any valuables and the child she was babysitting that night was not harmed. That seems to point to the person being after Evelyn specifically. Whether she had been sought out prior to that night? I’m not sure. I can’t find anything from her friends or family stating that anything out of the ordinary was happening in her life prior to the disappearance. Nothing mentions being followed or any people popping up where they should have been. So, while I can’t rule out Evelyn being targeted, I don’t lean towards it. In my mind, it seems far more likely that some noticed the young woman was babysitting alone and decided to attack out of opportunity.
Even though this case happened nearly 70 years ago, there could still be information being passed down through families or deathbed confessions that have gone unreported. Talk to your family members who may have lived near La Crosse in 1953. If you know anything about the Evelyn Hartley case, please reach out to the La Crosse Police Department at 608-785-5962. According to the Doe Network, Officer Tony Delap is working this case. Reference agency case number 53-1543 and NCMEC case number NCM1150955.
- https://archives.lacrosselibrary.org/local-history/history-repeats/evelyn-hartley/ (The La Crosse Library has compiled many old newspaper articles. I’m including specific articles below but this is an incredible resource.)
- https://www.reddit.com/r/UnresolvedMysteries/comments/8tpc5t/breaking_down_what_mightve_happened_to_evelyn/ – An excellent, detailed writeup, if you want more details on things like timeline or where Evelyn could have possibly ended up