The 1908 Murder That Inspired Twin Peaks

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By C.W.S.

We all have that story, the story that haunted and intrigued us as children, the story that opened us up to a different world, to a darkness that many of us still seek out in true crime and horror. Hometown legends, urban myths, famous murders read about in a tattered paperback or followed in the hard flash of the evening news. Twin Peaks was a bizarre, brilliant ‘whodunit’ television series that aired in the early 90s, and the first episode of the new season has already premiered. That’s a whole 25 years later. Something about Twin Peaks also stuck in our psyche, lit up something in us, and so the cycle continues.

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost was loosely inspired by a certain story his grandmother used to tell him as a child while he spent summers with her in rural New York, a place called Sand Lake. "The inspiration… sprang from a nightmarish little bedtime story my grandmother Betty Calhoun planted in my ear as a young boy,” Frost wrote. She told him that a ghost haunted the area of the lake they lived near. But was it just a story?

Known locally as the Teal Pond Mystery, this story comes from the real murder of a 20-year-old woman named Hazel Drew in 1908. Much like the central character of Twin Peaks, murdered teenager Laura Palmer, Hazel Drew’s body was also found washed ashore. However, Hazel was not “wrapped in plastic” the way that Laura was in the pilot of Twin Peaks, instead she was found with a corset string tight around her throat, her death caused from blunt force trauma to the back of her skull.

Hazel Drew

Hazel Drew

It was this woman, Hazel Drew, that Mark Frost mentioned to co-creator and now-famous surrealist director David Lynch. It isn’t hard to tell from Lynch’s films that he has an obsession with young women and their secret lives. The story of the beautiful, young Hazel Drew piqued his interest, especially when Frost revealed what he had found while doing research on a trip back Sand Lake, hoping to fill in the details he never knew.

At the time of her death, no one knew that Hazel had a vibrant, chaotic personal life. Last seen picking raspberries on the side of a local road, this image of innocence was shared by her community, and so what was to follow would come as an enormous shock. She had no known boyfriends, but after her murder police uncovered a great deal of correspondence between Hazel and several different men. Just like in Twin Peaks, a lot of what authorities had to go on were simply initials of those people Hazel was meeting in the night or writing to secretly. And just like Laura Palmer, the evidence showed that Hazel Drew lived a complicated double life, perhaps even as dark as Laura Palmer’s. Almost daily it seemed, new leads were announced by the police, creating a sensational tapestry of suspects.

There was Frank Smith, a farmhand Hazel had known, but he was cleared with an alibi. Then came Hazel’s uncle, William Taylor, who lived within a mile of the lake where Hazel was found and was there to help pull her body from the water. Though the town found him particularly suspect because of his odd behavior (he was known as 'suicidal and melancholy'), he was eventually cleared as they could find no evidence linking him to Hazel’s death. Then were was another local man, known as a ‘half-wit,’ who was said to torture animals, and a professor said to have employed Hazel. Hazel’s mother also mentioned a man from Troy who she believed possessed “hypnotic powers,” which served as vague inspiration for some occult elements of the Twin Peaks storyline.

Twin Peaks' co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost

Twin Peaks' co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost

The characters kept coming. A dentist that proposed to Hazel, a train conductor she may have been dating in secret, and local millionaire Henry Kramroth who ran the nearby establishment that has echoes of Twin Peaks’ insidious brothel/casino, One Eyed Jack’s. Rumors of orgies and women being held against their will flew about Kramoth’s resort, as well as rumors about Hazel’s romantic involvement with Kramroth, but ultimately he was also let off, despite witnesses hearing screams from his establishment around the time of the murder.

Although her injuries were consistent with homicide, authorities put forth a different theory, probably meant to placate the community. A newspaper article contained this statement from police: "After five days of careful investigation. in which many theories have been advanced, a motive for the murder is lacking. Nothing has been learned that would warrant the authorities in making an arrest in connection with the crime. This being the case, the accident theory is advanced. The Macadam road between Troy and Averill Park is popular with automobilists. A reckless chauffeur speeding along at night, may have struck the girl with his car, causing her death. Rater than face the consequences, and knowing the country well, it would have been a comparatively simple matter to have taken the girl's body in the car up the lonely road toward Taborton and to have thrown her body into the mill pond."

The murder of Hazel Drew is still officially unsolved. Frost told the Washington Post, “It seemed to be kind of a hastily conducted investigation, and because she was a person from not a prominent family, I think you could fairly say, and because there was very little sympathy for female victims of that sort in this time she may have gotten the short shrift.”

Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks

Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks

Although the story of Hazel’s death and the subsequent case served as the basis of Twin Peaks, it is certainly far from the actual story. It was more the feeling of the story, of the feeling of a small town that felt foreign to Frost, the secrets, the gossip, the closeness of the community that made for even more shocking revelations. The characters.

“I always lived in either big cities or suburbs in my life,” Frost wrote. “I’d grown up hearing about people in the mountain who were out of the ordinary, who were a little off-kilter sometimes. So I think all of those stories had an impact on my thinking about folks like this, and I definitely can remember feeling like, ‘Yeah, this is a little bit like the guy who used to live out by the sawmill’ or ‘This is one of the hermits that I’d hear about.’ ”

The area of Sand Lake has been crowded with a new surge of tourists since the announcement of Twin Peaks’ return for season three, but by now the community is used to people poking around the woods near the lake, hoping to piece together clues of what happened to the woman who served as inspiration for one of the more iconic victims in television and cinema history, Laura Palmer.

The new season of Twin Peaks is airing weekly on Showtime and seasons one and two are available on Netflix.