The real mys­tery of ‘Twin Peaks’: Who killed Hazel Drew?

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY DAVID BUSH­MAN AND MARK GIVENS

The tony re­sort com­mu­nity of Sand Lake in Up­state New York roasted in 90-de­gree heat for the third straight day on July 7, 1908, when 20-year-old Hazel Irene Drew walked along a re­mote sec­tion of Tabor­ton Road. Heav­ily wooded, this stretch out by Teal’s Pond was pop­u­lar with squir­rel hunters, campers and fish­er­men look­ing for bait, but it was risky busi­ness for a young woman like Hazel to be alone at night.

She was by all ac­counts a pre­pos­sess­ing woman, with flaxen, pom­padoured hair and blue eyes. About 7:30 p.m., she en­coun­tered two men: Frank Smith, a re­port­edly “dimwit­ted” teenage farm­hand who had met her on a hand­ful of oc­ca­sions and was said to fancy her, and Ru­dolph Gun­drum, 35, a char­coal ped­dler who had been driv­ing his horse-drawn wagon into town when Frank hailed him for a ride. In her gloved hand, Hazel idly swung her black­trimmed straw hat, dec­o­rated with three large plumes and a mono­grammed pin with the let­ter H. Hazel and Frank ex­changed salu­ta­tions. As the wagon moved on, Smith turned to Gun­drum and said, “That’s old man Drew’s old­est daugh­ter.”

This was the last con­firmed sight­ing of Hazel Drew be­fore her life­less and bloated body was dis­cov­ered float­ing face down in Teal’s Pond four days later. Cause of death: a blow to the back of the head, her skull crushed with a blunt, un­known weapon. The wa­ter had dis­torted Hazel’s fea­tures so be­yond recog­ni­tion that she could be iden­ti­fied only by her clothes and the gold fill­ings in her teeth. The ev­i­dence pointed over­whelm­ingly to mur­der.

To­day, the mys­tery of who killed Hazel and why re­mains un­solved. And while the case at­tracted daily coast-to-coast press cov­er­age for weeks at the time, in­clud­ing ex­ten­sive cov­er­age in The Wash­ing­ton Post, Hazel and her story would prob­a­bly be long for­got­ten to­day if not for one thing: The mur­der hap­pened in the vicin­ity of Tabor­ton, N.Y., where fu­ture “Twin Peaks” cocre­ator Mark Frost spent his sum­mer va­ca­tions as a youth.

Frost’s ma­ter­nal grand­mother, Betty Cal­houn, would spin yarns de­rived from lo­cal lore, in­clud­ing Hazel’s mur­der, fram­ing it “along the lines of a cau­tion­ary ghost story: Don’t go out in the woods at night,” as Frost re­mem­bered it in a re­cent in­ter­view. Frost in­her­ited his grand­mother’s flair for sto­ry­telling, be­com­ing an ac­com­plished nov­el­ist, screen­writer and tele­vi­sion au­teur who co-cre­ated, with David Lynch, the sto­ried 1990s ABC show that re­turns with brand-new episodes on Show­time on May 21, 26 years af­ter its can­cel­la­tion. Lit­tle could Frost’s grand­mother have imag­ined that her em­bel­lished ghost sto­ries would help launch one of the big­gest phe­nom­ena in TV his­tory.

Frost and Lynch were bat­ting around story ideas in a Los An­ge­les cof­fee shop when they con­jured up the im­age of a young woman’s life­less body wash­ing up on the lonely shore of a small-town lake. Lynch, as one might dis­cern from his fil­mog­ra­phy, was ob­sessed with young, trou­bled, vul­ner­a­ble women, es­pe­cially blondes. (Ear­lier, he and Frost had worked on a fic­tion­al­ized Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe biopic sug­gest­ing that the Kennedys were in­volved in her death.)

As for Frost, “I’d heard sto­ries about [Hazel] all through my grow­ing up, be­cause she’s sup­pos­edly haunted this area of the lake,” he said at a 2013 “Twin Peaks” re­union at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “So that’s kind of where Laura came from.”

That would be Laura Palmer (played by Sh­eryl Lee), whose mur­der is the core of the orig­i­nal se­ries and, ac­cord­ing to Lynch, will again be a cen­tral theme when the show re­turns.

Dur­ing the show’s de­vel­op­ment, Frost started pok­ing around the Sand Lake city hall for de­tails of the mur­der. “It was the no­tion of this girl’s body be­ing found on the edge of the wa­ter, the mys­tery re­main­ing un­solved, the mul­ti­ple sus­pects, and the kind of cross-cul­tural and dif­fer­ent so­cial classes of peo­ple she in­ter­acted with,” he says. “It re­ally struck my fancy,”

Laura, a 17-year-old home­com­ing queen, and Hazel, who had worked as a do­mes­tic ser­vant since the age of 14, were both small-town beau­ties whose mur­ders ex­posed a wealth of per­sonal se­crets. On the sur­face, Laura led a tran­quil, ex­em­plary life: straight-A stu­dent, faith­ful girl­friend to the quar­ter­back of the high school foot­ball team, Meals on Wheels vol­un­teer and so on. But as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion pro­gressed, se­cret lovers and sor­did re­la­tion­ships emerged, en­thralling FBI Spe­cial Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle Ma­cLach­lan) and view­ers alike.

Sim­i­larly, Hazel’s fam­ily and friends at first in­sisted she had no spe­cial love in­ter­est. How­ever, as ini­tial leads dried up, in­ves­ti­ga­tors un­earthed nu­mer­ous clues sug­gest­ing dal­liances and clan­des­tine meet­ings. Just as Agent Cooper gleaned cru­cial in­for­ma­tion from the pages of Laura Palmer’s diary in “Twin Peaks,” Rensselaer County au­thor­i­ties, led by District At­tor­ney Jarvis P. O’Brien, dis­cov­ered dozens of post­cards and let­ters be­tween Hazel and her ac­quain­tances — iden­ti­fied only by their ini­tials — locked away in Hazel’s trunk.

The “Twin Peaks” nar­ra­tive at var­i­ous times pointed the guilty fin­ger at sen­si­tive biker James Hur­ley, lo­cal drug dealer Leo John­son and sleazy real es­tate de­vel­oper Ben­jamin Horne. In­ves­ti­ga­tors in Hazel’s case, un­der mount­ing pres­sure from the pub­lic and the na­tional press, un­cov­ered new sus­pects on a seem­ingly daily ba­sis. Frank Smith, the farm­hand who crossed paths with Hazel shortly be­fore her death, was an early tar­get. In ad­di­tion to his af­fec­tions for the dead girl, he re­peat­edly made con­tra­dic­tory state­ments to the au­thor­i­ties. When cor­rob­o­rat­ing al­i­bis seemed to clear his name, a string of ec­cen­tric sus­pects fol­lowed, be­gin­ning with Hazel’s surly and melan­choly un­cle, Wil­liam Tay­lor, whose farm was lo­cated within a mile of Teal’s Pond. While fol­low­ers of the case felt he was odd and sus­pi­cious, au­thor­i­ties could never un­cover di­rect ev­i­dence link­ing him to the mur­der, and he was even­tu­ally cleared.

Other iras­ci­ble char­ac­ters would fleet­ingly shoot to the fore­front as per­sons of in­ter­est — in­clud­ing a den­tist who had pro­posed to Hazel, a train con­duc­tor she was ru­mored to be se­cretly see­ing and an Al­bany mil­lion­aire, Henry Kram­roth, who ran a nearby re­sort where strange happenings in­volv­ing or­gies were said to tran­spire (shades of Ben Horne and his brothel-casino One Eyed Jacks from “Twin Peaks”). Kram­roth de­fended him­self against al­le­ga­tions that women were be­ing held against their will at his re­sort and that neigh­bors had heard screams em­a­nat­ing from the camp near the time of the mur­der.

As Frost con­cludes, “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.”

Ex­actly how much did Hazel’s case di­rectly in­flu­ence “Twin Peaks”? Frost in­sists his re­search never got that deep into the weeds. How­ever, he does ac­knowl­edge that his gen­eral im­pres­sions of the area played a cru­cial role in his con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of the set­ting.

“I al­ways lived in ei­ther big cities or sub­urbs in my life,” Frost re­mem­bers. “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.’ ”

Sand Lake is, in many re­gards, a north­east­ern dop­pel­ganger to its fic­tional Pa­cific North­west coun­ter­part. Lo­cated down the slopes of Tabor­ton Moun­tain, about 10 miles east of Al­bany, it has a pop­u­la­tion of 10,135 — closer to the 5,000 orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned by Lynch and Frost for Twin Peaks, be­fore ABC in­sisted the iconic “Wel­come to Twin Peaks” sign ex­pand the num­ber to 51,201, some­how be­liev­ing the low pop­u­la­tion would turn view­ers off. And like Twin Peaks, Sand Lake’s his­tory is tied to the abun­dant nat­u­ral re­sources of the re­gion. Sand Lake his­to­rian Bob Moore notes of “Twin Peaks,” “The log­ging in­dus­try, the Great North­ern Ho­tel and the iso­lated hunt­ing camps seem oddly re­lated to Sand Lake in the late 1800s and early 1900s.”

The town’s om­nipresent cloak of trees smoth­ers the land­scape, ced­ing barely enough space for the roads, build­ings and peo­ple to go about their busi­ness. Though not the Dou­glas firs that Dale Cooper fa­mously ob­sessed over, the va­ri­ety of elm, oak and maple trees of Up­state New York cer­tainly evokes those iconic shots of wind-tus­sled branches that dom­i­nated “Twin Peaks.” The sur­round­ing moun­tains and the gen­er­ally gray and driz­zly cli­mate give both the fic­tional town and its real-life coun­ter­part a per­vad­ing at­mos­phere of dan­ger­ous in­trigue. As Frost’s brother, Scott Frost, also a writer on the orig­i­nal se­ries, re­calls about the re­gion, “This is the kind of place that lets a kid have a ter­rific sense of imag­i­na­tion.”

Un­for­tu­nately, the par­al­lels be­tween Hazel Drew and Laura Palmer go only so far. While Frost and Lynch fa­mously failed to re­buff net­work pres­sure to ex­pose Laura’s killer (no spoilers here), there were no med­dling ABC ex­ec­u­tives to force a res­o­lu­tion to Hazel’s story. In­stead, weeks of in­ves­ti­ga­tion cul­mi­nated in a grand inquest where wit­nesses were gath­ered to ob­tain their de­fin­i­tive tes­ti­monies. Un­for­tu­nately, lit­tle new in­for­ma­tion was elicited and the case ended abruptly.

“A wise man once told me that mys­tery is the most es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent of life, for the fol­low­ing rea­son: mys­tery cre­ates won­der, which leads to cu­rios­ity, which in turn pro­vides the ground for our de­sire to un­der­stand who and what we truly are,” Frost wrote in his 2016 novel “The Se­cret His­tory of Twin Peaks.” The so­lu­tion to Hazel’s mur­der may lie for­ever be­yond our grasp, but it’s our long­ing for an­swers that makes her story — and the story of Laura Palmer — so se­duc­tive.

David Bush­man is a tele­vi­sion cu­ra­tor at the Pa­ley Cen­ter for Me­dia in New York and the co-au­thor of the 2016 book “Twin Peaks FAQ” and the up­com­ing “Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer FAQ.” Mark Givens hosts a monthly Twin Peaks pod­cast called Deer Meadow Ra­dio. They are at work on a book on the Hazel Drew mur­der.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The 1908 mur­der of Hazel Drew in the town of Sand Lake, N.Y., re­ceived heavy cov­er­age from the news me­dia of the time, in­clud­ing The Wash­ing­ton Post. The bru­tal mur­der later served as in­spi­ra­tion for the TV show “Twin Peaks,” which is be­ing revived this month. Laura Palmer, the vic­tim in the TV show, was played by ac­tress Sh­eryl Lee.

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