A Cape Cod Halloween Story: The Lady of the Dunes

For more than four decades a cold-case murder has continued to haunt Lower Cape Cod residents and law enforcement.

On a bright morning in the summer of 1974, a teen girl was walking with her dog on the dunes in Provincetown, a mile or so from Race Point Beach, when something in the brush caught her eye. Curiosity led her to follow a smell where she discovered the mutilated and naked body of a young woman. The girl ran away and alerted authorities who arrived to investigate.

The scene was grisly. The body had clearly been there for at least several days, perhaps a couple weeks. It was covered with hundreds, maybe thousands of maggots who had done a number on what was left of the young woman’s corpse. She was lying face-down on a blanket, her head resting on a pair of blue jeans and a blue bandana. She had long auburn or red hair, pulled back into a ponytail with a gold-flecked elastic band, her toenails had been painted pink. She had been an athletic girl, weighed near 145 pounds, she’d had some fairly expensive dental work, that much they could tell.

Other details were less clear. According to reports from the time, the work of the bugs had made it difficult to settle on the woman’s exact age, experts speculated she was most likely somewhere between 25 and 40, though even that was uncertain. Several of those expensive teeth had been removed, as had both hands and a forearm.

Her head was nearly severed from her body likely as a result of a strong and impassioned strangler. What appears to have killed the young lady though was a pretty serious blow to the head which crushed the left side of her skull, with an instrument that analysts reckon must be similar to a military entrenching tool. To make matters even worse, she also appeared to have been sexually assaulted with a block of wood.

It’s understandably difficult to identify a person in that condition. As a result, she became known as The Lady in the Dunes.

Some investigators feel the missing teeth, hand and forearm indicate the killer wanted to hide either the victim’s or their identity. The way she was sleeping on one side of that blanket, head resting on the folded blue jeans and bandana, led them to believe she may have been sleeping at the time, perhaps she knew her killer.

Local police combed through thousands of missing-person reports and found no matches. At the scene, the sand and beach blanket were not disturbed. Extensive searches of the surrounding area turned up nothing new. The case quickly ran cold and after just three months the Lady in the Dunes was buried, minus her skull, which they kept for further investigation.

They’ve exhumed the body twice since then, run countless tests on what bits of her body are left, completed high-tech facial reconstructions in an attempt to more clearly ascertain what the woman likely looked like at the time of her death. Her DNA has been compared to that of other missing young women in the hope of an identification but alas, no dice.

In 2004, a serial killer named Hadden Clark actually confessed to killing the woman, but even that was no help. Clark was crazy, as serial killers often are, and his history of paranoid schizophrenia led police to doubt his credibility.

There has been speculation that the region’s most infamous murderer, of that generation at least, may have had a hand in the slaying. You see, notorious South Boston crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was known to be in Provincetown at the time of the killing.

He is also known to enjoy the company of young, athletic, fair-haired women, and has a penchant for fairly gruesome homicides. Debbie Davis, for example, young and fair-haired, was dismembered, hands cut off, and teeth pulled out when Whitey lost affection for the woman. Her body was found in a marsh. It stands to reason that he’s been a person of interest at various points throughout the investigation, but nothing solid enough to satisfy the cops.

Predictably, when there is almost no progress in a case for decade, after decade, even somewhat farfetched theories begin to seem plausible.

Perhaps one of those theories is the Jaws conjecture. It first came up a couple years ago, courtesy of author Joe Hill, son of horror and suspense legend Stephen King. There was this little move which filmed on Martha’s Vineyard and the surrounding area in 1974, it’s called “Jaws.” And in that picture there are number of extras, hundreds of them actually.

And one of those extras is a young lady, athletic, maybe 145 pounds, she is wearing blue jeans and her auburn hair is swept back in a blue bandana. Principal photography of the film started on May 2, 1974 and did not conclude until October. Hill figured that the time frame fits, basic appearance seems to work out, the blue bandana, the hair. Granted there’s not much there, just enough to make the whole thing a bit more spooky.

“In all the time since her death not one person has stepped forward to say, “I saw her. I met her a few weeks before she was found. I can tell you her name.” Hill writes, “But what if we’ve all seen her? What if she’s been in front of us for decades and we just never noticed?”

By David Beatty

737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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