Death At Willow Grove Amusement Park, Philly PA

strangedisappearnceThe title-The Disappearance of Mary Young doesn’t make sense to me. Mary Young doesn’t disappear. She’s murdered. And she’s murdered in public. In a dark ride at an amusement park outside of Philly PA. Which I know for a fact is based on a real park called Willow Grove. My dad used to take the trolly up to it frequently in the 30s, and my mother thinks she has vague memories of doing the same. The park was fairly large, and had the super rides other amusement  places ballyhooed–like Coney Island and the Palisades. The particular ride author Milton Propper chose to have Mary die in, consists of a fake mountain, with a roller coaster within. There are few of these types of rides left. Just as the water dark rides have disappeared, the ones where couples were able to spoon as they slid along among various fake backgrounds. There’s one still in Rye Playland NY, or at least I hope there is, a child somehow managed to fall out and drown in the shallow water years back, and amusement parks tend to close rides after things like that. There was a new roller coaster dark ride in Kennywood PA that I rode on several years ago, and it was swell. As a kid, I adored riding a partial dark ride in Wildwood NJ, it too was a mountain, but it went slower than a roller coaster and dipped in and out of the dark, as if we were riding on mine carts in a gold mine with various cowboy and miner figures as decor. I believe this ride only closed recently–meaning within the last 20 years.

So, who cares about where the murder took place? I do, because I don’t know of any other mystery utilizing such a location and it’s a fun interesting way to off someone. I

Willow Grove mountain dark ride.
Willow Grove mountain dark ride.

mean, think about it. It’s just you and your companion alone in the dark where screams fill the place from happily frightened riders, so even if your victim should cry out, who would think anything out of the ordinary? You can stick a knife in someone, through the heart, or neck say,  make sure they are seated in a proper fashion with nothing looking out of place, and when the car slowly comes to a halt at the finish, you hop out, down the exit and loose yourself in the crowd. In the book, the murderer had an even easier time of it. Back when this was written, 1928, you could stay on the ride, right in your own seat, by paying the guy who hand braked the ride. So, the murderer got out, and said his companion wanted to stay on for another round. No one took notice of her lifeless figure, and she rode again. Only after the ride ended a second time and she didn’t get off, did anyone get suspicious, and it was because the brakeman needed to fill her car and get the ride moving.

“Woodlawn Park is that type of institution to which the common people flock, but at which blue law advocates and reformers raise holy hands in horror. It is situated within the Philadelphia district, a blot upon the landscape of the main-line towns, whose citizens neither welcomed its foundation nor, from their haughty seclusion in mansion and garden, approve of its continuance.”

“Thrills in the Dark grows to thunder as a car, after poising itself upon the brink of an incline, hurtles forward  at increasing momentum into breakneck speed. And even that cannot drown the shrill throaty screams of patrons enjoying vicariously thrills not part of their norma daily lives.”

The murderer in this story sticks some sort of very long sharp object into his companion, expertly so she dies almost instantly, and leaves the ride no one the wiser. Thus the investigation begins into the girl’s death. She’s young, pretty and unidentified. The detective assigned is Propper’s protagonist, Tommy Rankin, a colorless humorless detective in his late 20s who strode up through the ranks swiftly due to his major  successes.  First he must identify the victim. Then interview all that knew her, and with all those facts in place, will identify the murderer. But after establishing her identity, and eliminating various and sundry suspects, he’s left with little

Another view of the ride.
Another view of the ride.

more than the fact that she seems to have been someone else before she became Mary Young. And he believes his answer to the crime lay not in Philly, but the Chicago area, because of the only newspapers found in her bare boardinghouse room in Germantown, a once lovely part of the city.

I’m attracted to books by Propper due mostly to his location. I’d read another by him because the crime took place on a train bound for the shore from Philly. But they are slow going. Very slow. Rankin is as boring a detective as I’ve found, omitting Fleming Stone from the unreadable Carolyn Wells books. I love the descriptions of parts of the city that are radically different today than then, especially Germantown that was once a rather middle class or well to do neighborhood, and today is comprised of decaying, burned, boarded up houses lived in by the poorest of the area.

Rankin follows his last lead to the midwest and there he finds an astounding fact–


I give you a heads up, not because I believe a single person will track down a copy of this and read it, but because it’s the proper thing to do–get it–proper–Propper?

Anyhoo, Rankin identifies Mary Young as an heiress to a huge fortune left by her dead uncle when he realizes she left his home because he was forcing her to marry her cousin she despised. Everyone loved the cousin of her distaste and were puzzled as to her animosity. Her experience with the cousin was unpleasant, and therefore the idea of a pending marriage to the man was intolerable. Plus, she’d not laid eyes upon him since she was but a kid of around 12 or so. The uncle, in remorse, changed his will to include only Mary, or Mildred which was her real name, with her cousin Bobby to inherit only if Mildred died before their uncle, which, of course, she did.

There was the perfect suspect, and there he remained, only a suspect after he established an alibi with the woman who raised him until his uncle located the boy. According to the foster mother, Bobby was with her in New York City during the time of the murder. After some lengthy exposition, the big shocker is revealed.

Ready? Mary Young’s companion on that fateful evening on Thrills in the Dark, was not a man. It was a girl, a woman. One of the people Rankin interviewed in regard to the murder. One that left an odd impression on the detective. Well, that seductive gal was none other than–Bobby in drag. That’s right. A man dressed as a woman rented a room in the same boardinghouse as Mary, befriended her, and stuck her with a knife in the dark.

Here's the dark ride I loved as a kid--the Golden Nugget--at Wildwood NJ
Here’s the dark ride I loved as a kid–the Golden Nugget–at Wildwood NJ

Then walked away, was interviewed by Rankin a couple of times, then moved on without a single person suspecting.

I had to laugh at this ending. Here’s the thin explanation as to how Bobby would have fooled everyone. Bobby had been a really great stage actor at his all boys private school, so—yep, he played all the female roles. LOL.

I personally had a great time reading the beginning and end of the book, the middle being a bit hard to sludge through, but I always give kudos to authors from the old days, they certainly could come up with some whoppers.