T H E L O V E R S
This story feels familiar to us for numerous reasons, from several angles, whether they be the familiarity of the setting, characters and atmosphere due to the many iterations, homages, and copies that have spread across the world as myth and legend, or even immortalised in film and television - but perhaps the most familiar aspect of this Urban Legend are the anxieties that the story itself evokes.
It is a fear that all parents feel at some point of their time in parenthood, where our young venture out into a dangerous new world, no longer needing us by their sides. By the time they are heading into their late teenage years, many are already out driving with friends and partners. No longer are they playing a few streets away, heading home when the lights come on - now they have the means necessary to venture into places that would be deemed too far by foot.
From the opposite side of this anxiety comes the fears of the young themselves - after many years of dreaming of what opportunities and adventures would arise with the addition of a vehicle in their world; a newfound confidence and readiness to join the adult world is sprung to the forefront of most teenagers minds. This has been the case for decades and yet, as always with excitement into the unknown, there is a dash of anxiety that seeps its way through alongside it. This story suggests that the transition into an adult may not be as smooth as first believed; it is a dark reminder that although you are becoming a big fish in the tank of adolescence, you’re about to become a very small fish in a very large, dangerous world.
The Legend itself is an evolution of the far tamer, but far older Urban Legend ‘The Hook-Man’, following the story of a young couple spending quality time together down a lovers lane only to be disturbed by a news report that plays between the songs on the radio that they used to get into the mood. The news report speaks of a serial killer that had escaped from a nearby institution and that all nearby should be on the lookout for the killer’s noticeable characteristic - a hook for a hand.
The young couple found that the mood was in fact ruined by the report, the young woman now finding herself uncomfortable and unable to feel relaxed whilst out in the dark streets of the lover's lane. They both agreed to make their way home but as the young man dropped his girlfriend off at her home, she was horrified to find the hook of the killer's hand stuck into the side of the car, piercing the metal.
They had narrowly escaped the clutches of the serial killer’s murderous intent.
The story of ‘The Lovers’ is a far more graphic and horrifying tale of the hook killer. Perhaps it was competition with the ability to show more graphic contents in the movies that made the story evolve to what it became, or perhaps the graphic nature of movies and this story were both morphing at the same time - products of a world that grew ever harder to shock with every decade that past. These stories, much like many of the Urban Legends we tell, blend into the world of cinema in many ways as the campfire stories are developed and integrated into screenplays, only to be filmed and exported to cinemas around the world. The earlier version of ‘The Dead Boyfriend’ known simply as ‘The Hook-Man’ appeared as early as 1947 in ‘Dick Tracy’s Dilemma’, where Dick Tracy must hunt for a killer with a hook and has continued into horror, most notably slasher, ever since. According to film expert and critic Mark Kermode, the story functions as a morality archetype on youth sexuality which would explain the expanding of slashers involving teenagers from the seventies onwards, created by the now adults who had been a part of the sexual awakening of the sixties.
The latter half of the 20th century was when the story truly engulfed the excitable dark corners of societies imagination. 1980’s ‘He knows you’re alone’ opened with a scene where a young couple is attacked and killed whilst parked in a car. A year later, a version of the story appeared in the collection of short horrors ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’. 1997’s ‘Campfire Tales’ opens with a segment retelling The Hook Legend’ and in that very same year ‘I Know what you did Last Summer’ opened with a campfire legend of the hook killer being told, only for a real serial killer of the same design to hunt them down later and this is all without even mentioning the design of the villain in the horror franchise ‘Candyman’.
The story itself has proven to be as unkillable as the cinematic serial killers it has inspired over the years, featuring in several more films than I have mentioned and numerous television episodes across the board, around the world. Each one adding a subtle change or rewrite to the narrative, each one creating its own slightly different turn of events that unfolded down that lover's lane. Although my story focused on the lesser-known version of the tale, the premise and ideas remain ultimately the same. Identical twins in every way except the small intricate details that separate them but we must ask ourselves, is any of this based on truth? Whether it be the hanging boyfriend or the hooked killer, did any of this really happen?
The answer is yes - although it may not be as straight forward as you may first think - This has, in fact, happened on more than one occasion and not all of them pre-date the legend itself...
The first attack, although not originally linked, occurred on 22nd February 1946. It was around a quarter to midnight when Jimmy Hollis, aged 24, and his girlfriend, Mary Jeanne Larey, aged 19, parked on a long, secluded lovers lane after spending the evening at the local cinema. They would only be there for ten minutes before a man, wearing a white cloth mask - with eye and mouth holes cut out would appear at Hollis’s driver-side door, shining his torch through the window. Jimmy was unsure if the man was in fact simply trying to prank him and so he told him that he believed he had the wrong guy. The masked man simply replied ‘I don’t want to kill you, fellow, so do what I say’.
Shortly after, Jimmy and Mary were ordered out of the car where Jimmy was commanded to remove his trousers; it was then the masked man would strike Jimmy across the head twice with a heavy, blunt object. Mary would later confess to investigators that the crack of metal against bone was so loud, that she had initially assumed it was a gunshot instead of the sound of a fracturing skull. She had assumed, as many of us would, that they were in the process of being robbed and so, to stop any more violence and to hopefully save both of their lives, Mary pulled out Jimmy’s wallet and showed the masked man the empty contents inside to prove they had nothing to give - instead, she was struck as well.
Struggling to her feet, the attacker then ordered her to run, even dictating which road she should run down. Panicked and confused Mary began to flee, this only lasted a moment before the attacker caught up with her once more. She told the marauder that she had run because he had told her to, to which he responded that she was a liar - striking her down again and sexually assaulting her with the barrel of his gun in a warped, cruel game of cat and mouse.
She begged him to kill her but instead was saved by an oncoming noise, presumably an oncoming car, that scared the assailant off and away. After the assault, Mary fled, running half a mile until she came by a house and asked for help; here she was able to find safety and to finally contact the police.
Whilst this escape to safety was occurring, Jimmy had regained consciousness, managing to flag down a passerby in his dazed and confused state. The driver left Jimmy there while they sped off to a nearby funeral home where they called the police and within Half an hour, Bowie County Sheriff W.H. Bill Presley and three officers arrived at the scene of the crime.
Mary was hospitalised overnight for minor head wounds, with much of her ordeal being the psychological turmoil that came with the events. Jimmy, on the other hand, required three months hospitalisation to recover from the multiple skull fractures he had incurred - but luckily, both the victims of this lover’s lane crime had survived. To add a spanner in the works of the investigation, Mary and Jimmy both gave conflicting reports as to the appearance of their attacker. Mary had claimed the man was wearing a white bag over his head with cut-outs for their eyes and mouth - but she could see enough flesh to confirm the man was African American. Jimmy, on the other hand, claimed the man was white, around 30 years old but did admit he could not distinguish his features as he had been blinded by the torchlight that shone through the glass, with one of the only corroborating factors being that the assailant was at least 6 foot tall. Law enforcement took a strange approach to this information - over the next two months they rejected Jimmy’s account and badgered Mary - even going as far as to suggest that she knew the true identity of their attacker and was, in fact, covering for them. Something she denied for the rest of her life.
It was only four weeks later that another lover’s lane incident occurred, although as often happens with sequels, this one took a step even further than before. It was 24th March 1946 and Richard L. Griffin, aged 29, and his new girlfriend, Polly Ann Moore, aged only 17, were found dead in Griffin’s Sedan on a Sunday morning by a passing driver. The motorist later explained that he saw the parked car on a lover’s lane named Rich Road and pulled over to check on them. At first, he had assumed that both passengers were asleep; it was only as he edged closer that he noticed with more detail that Richard was perched between the front seats on his knees - his head resting on his crossed hands - his pockets turned inside out. Polly was found with what seemed to be less thought out placement, simply sprawled out, face down in the back seats; although later evidence would suggest that she was in fact killed on a blanket outside of the car only to be placed back inside later. Both had died by a gunshot to the back of the head. The blood on the inside of the car put together with the blood-soaked patch of earth outside the vehicle strongly suggested to officers that the victims had been killed outside and placed into their positions in the vehicle once dead.
The murders led to a city-wide investigation, along with Texas and Arkansas city police, the Department of Public Safety, miller and Cass County Sherriff’s departments, and the FBI whilst the panic of the public grew from house to house as the rumour mill spun out false information of sexual assault that occurred with the murders of lovers lane. This large-scale investigation had erupted, with the local police interviewing between fifty to sixty potentially witnesses within three days of the victim's discovery. With little to no information regarding the killer's motives or whereabouts, the police posted a $500 reward in an effort to gain new information, in the hopes that they could finally follow a path that would lead to an arrest and conviction but the reward brought nothing but dozens of false leads brought forward by those hoping for some extra cash.
Several weeks later, on 3rd May 1946, another crime was committed, although this time, the killer had chosen his victims in a different situation than before. The lovers now were veering closer to middle-aged and in the comfort of their own home. Virgil Starks, aged 37 and his wife Katie Starks, aged 36, lived on a modest, reach-style house on a 500-acre farm off the Highway. As he always did, Virgil clicked on his favourite weekly radio show and sat in his armchair in the living room. Katie was in the bedroom, lying on the bed to give Virgil some alone time with his show when she heard a noise from the back of the house; she asked Virgil to turn down the radio but by then it was too late as two gunshots blasted into the back of his head from a closed double window, not even 3 feet from where he sat. Katie, surprisingly, didn’t hear the gunshots and instead mistook the sound for the breaking of glass, most likely due to the shattering of the window as the bullets passed through. At first, she believed that Virgil had dropped something, only realising the horror of the events when she walked into the living room to see Virgil stand up, only to slump back into his chair. She ran to him, lifting his head - only now realising that he had just died.
She paced to the phone with haste but before she could dial the police - she was also shot twice in the face from the very same window. One of the bullets entered her right cheek, passing through her mouth and exiting behind her left ear. The other bullet entered just below her lip, breaking her jaw and splintering out several teeth before lodging under her tongue. She had dropped to the floor but managed to get back onto her feet, running to get a pistol from the living room but her view was obstructed from the gushing blood that poured from her face - blinding her. In her panic, she could hear the killer tearing their way through the screen wire of the back porch as they fought to enter the house. Thinking she was going to be killed, Katie made her way to the bedroom at the front of the house to leave a note but before she could, she heard the horrifying sounds of the killer entering the house through the kitchen window. With a face gushing with blood and sweat, full of large open wounds, her bones shattered and splintered, and a pain that we cannot fathom - Katie sprinted out of the room, darting through several rooms of the house to keep herself at a distance from the hunter that stalked her movements.
With a river of blood and segments of teeth and bone left trailing through the house, Katie finally flung open the front door and ran as fast as she could. Still barefoot and still in her blood-soaked nightgown, she made her way across the street to her sister and brother-in-law’s house but frustratingly, nobody was home. With sheer determination and will, Katie continued further, at least another 50 yards until she arrived at another house. When they answered the door, she simply gasped ‘Virgil’s dead’ before collapsing in front of them.
The front page of the newspapers the following morning were full of frenzy, blasting cap locked headlines as their bold fonts and the fear, disgust, and excitement buzzed through the media and households around the country once more. After studying the scene, it was noted by the FBI that it was incredible that Katie had not bled to death with the streams of thick red that had stained all floors across the house. Investigators looked further into the murders, stating that with only two bullet holes in the window, an automatic rifle must have been used. It was also declared that after killing Virgil, the murder simply waited outside the window for Katie to arrive so he could do it again.
They found three noteworthy clues at the horrifying scene of The Starks household. The first was a flashlight found in a hedge underneath the window that the couple were shot from. The second was the bloody footprints around the house and smudged fingerprints on the surfaces. The third was the calibre of bullets used to commit the murder.
Sherrif Davis publicly stated that although this murder could not necessarily be directly linked to ‘The Phantom’, a nickname given to the murderous villain that haunted lovers lanes for the previous months, due to the calibre of bullets being different to the previous crimes, it was not impossible that the killer was not one and the same.
People nearby were brought in for questioning, bloodhounds were brought in to help with the hunt, only to find the trail went cold before reaching the highway.
That evening, many officers patrolled all known lovers lanes in the hopes they could prevent another attack. Very soon, more state police were called in to help in the investigation and to aid in the protection of the local civilians as the anxiety grew amongst the homes - a realisation that perhaps staying away from lovers lanes was not going to be enough to keep you alive.
Officers had detained at least twelve potential suspects but out of them, only three stayed on for further questioning. With fifty officers working around the clock to solve the mysteries, including sheriffs of four counties, the FBI, and Texas Rangers, the amount of evidence and eventual progress was frustratingly slow. Amongst all of these individuals, an unofficial diagnosis was theorised by the law enforcement of ‘Sex Mania’ due to the overt undertones of sexuality and love amongst the victims and the fact that none of the victims had been robbed, and Katie’s purse had been left on the bed, one that contained money and jewels. As expected, this sexy, sellable new hypothesis exploded in the media as the Texarkana Gazette plastered the bold headline ‘SEX MANIAC HUNTED IN MURDERS’.
This caused an eruption in gossip and hearsay to explode amongst the people that lived in the vicinity of these crimes, spreading the rumour mill further into the outer towns, with the story expanding and evolving to fit several narratives, birthing a new Urban Legend.It seemed the murderer was able to hide amongst the noise and confusion that the rumour mill and chaos that came with it had created - keeping track of the facts amongst the stories that people told were a perfect way for the murders to hide in plain sight.
That was until Max Tackett, a 33-year-old Arkansas state police officer realised that a car had been stolen on the night of one of the murders and that a previously stolen car had been found abandoned. He found a car in a car park that had reportedly been stolen and staked it out until someone came back for it - when they did, he arrested them - 21-year-old Peggy Swinney. She told him that she had just gotten married, but that her husband was away, currently in Atlanta, Texas, trying to sell another stolen car. The man Youell Swinney, once in custody would not talk but unfortunately for him, his wife Peggy confessed in great detail that he was, in fact, the Phantom Killer. Due to the laws in 1946, Peggy couldn’t be forced to testify against her husband and because she was considered by many to be an unreliable witness, Youell was not arrested for the murder. Instead, with only circumstantial evidence, Swinney was sent to prison as a habitual offender for car theft.
There is a considerable amount of doubt in regard to the guilt of Youell Swinney but there are several factors that, although circumstantial, is compelling. The first is that the car Peggy Swinney was arrested in for stealing was the one reported missing on the night of the murders of Richard Griffin and Polly Anne Moore. The second, that I admit, is of course easily lied about, is that when Max finally caught Youell, he begged ‘please don’t shoot me’. When Officer Tackett replied, ‘I’m not going to shoot you for stealing cars.’, Youell apparently replied ‘Mister, don’t play games with me. You want me for more than stealing cars’. The third is a similar case of Youell putting his foot in his mouth, at least, according to the police. Chief Deputy Tillman Johnson claims that when he was in the police car with Youell, he asked ‘Mr. Johnson, what do you think they’ll do to me for this? Will they give me the chair?’ Johnson responded with, ‘you won’t get much. Maybe five or ten years. They don’t give you the electric chair for stealing cars’. It was here Youell Swinney reportedly replied ‘Mr Johnson, you got me for more than stealing cars.’. To make matters worse for him, when the lawyer told Peggy that her husband was being held for murder, before her confession, she exclaimed ‘How did they find out?’ But again, take this with a pinch of salt as the police are not above pushing an agenda when they believe they have their man.
Whilst I do not believe that silence is necessarily a sign of guilt, especially in such shocking circumstances, it doesn’t help Swinney’s case that he remained silent throughout the accusations instead of pleading his innocence. Not that it would have done much good. Especially since Peggy had already confessed to her husband’s actions, revealing very detailed information, including some information officers already knew, and some that surprisingly, they did not. But this was not a clear cut arrest, and it was by no means a smooth process, with many complications arising, throwing several spanners in the machinery and clogging its progress. Firstly, Youell's fingerprints did not match any of the latent prints at the crime scene. Secondly, Peggy Swinney recanted her confessions. The Texas Rangers and Sherrif Bill Presley were not even convinced that Swinney was the phantom at all, believing in the strong chance that they were focusing time on a false lead.
Youell Swinney himself never did confess, always denying that he was, in fact, the dreaded killer. But more damning than most - Dozens of officers and Sheriffs from both miller county and Texas city worked tirelessly for six months to validate Peggy Swinney’s stories of her and her husbands’ whereabouts. Finally deducing that Peggy was lying. To many, the case is closed with Youell Swinney, too many more, this does not fit the narrative enough for it to be a compelling case, leaving the even more terrifying prospect that the killer was free but then we must ask ourselves why did they stop? Did they stop at all or did they just get better at it? It’s difficult to tell and our decisions on it will always be nothing but opinion as we, unfortunately, may never find the truth.
Years past, the rumours slowed, and the stories of murders on lovers lanes became nothing more than Urban Legends told around campfires but then something strange happened.
As if an eerie epilogue to the narrative that would serve as a cliffhanger to another sequel. It is unknown if it was a tasteless prank by somebody that lacks any sense of class or decorum or if it was a true confession that we had accepted would never come but on one day in 1999, an anonymous woman contacted a family member of one of the victims, apologising for what her father had done. In 2000, another family member of another victim received the same call, once again apologising for her father's actions.
But with that, is it worth noting that Youell Swinney had no daughters.
S O U R C E S
(In order of mention)
Kansas City Times
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Daily News New York
Lubbock Evening Journal
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Hope Star Arkansas
Texarkana Moonlight Murders by Michael Newton
| 11th May 1946
| 10th May 1946
| 11th May 1946
| 2nd May 1971
| 25th March 1946
| 22nd September 1946
| 25th March 1946
| 16th April 1946
| 5th May 1946
| 6th May 1946
| 1st February 2001