Dr. Zimmerly's House of Horrors:
Neighbors thought it was haunted but the truth was far worse
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
Mechanic Grove sits in Lancaster County, about ten miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is today much as it was in the 1930s: an earthen quilt of green and brown farmland. Modern residents and visitors enjoy the nearby state parks, camping resort, and golf course. Eighty years ago the Mennonite church was the principal social hub. Like the church, the community went about its work with serious, quiet intent. But this steady way of life would be rocked in 1935 when police arrived at the rundown farmhouse owned by the suspiciously private Dr. Harry C. Zimmerly.
Zimmerly, at age 67, was loose-jowled with a bulbous nose seated squarely between his dark eyes and brows. He hid his unkempt gray hair under a fedora. Originally from Pittsburgh, the doctor moved to Mechanic Grove around 1919. No one knew why he'd left the city for a rural farm community four hours to the east. It was quite clear, though, that he had no interest in meeting his neighbors. Shortly after taking possession of the farm, he built a fence tall enough to block the view from the second-story windows of nearby homes.
The rumors began almost immediately after Zimmerly moved in. Neighbors swore they heard screams and groans in the middle of the night. Others saw strange lights at odd, early morning hours. Was Zimmerly conjuring spirits of the dead, some wondered? Those who brushed such nonsense aside were shocked by the awful truth. Ghosts, as it turned out, would have been far less frightening.
Zimmerly might have continued his strange, private life indefinitely had it not been for Gloria Lawson. When she went missing in March 1935, her family vowed to find her. A Calvert County, Maryland native, those closest to Gloria knew why she went to see Dr. Zimmerly. The mother of two was pregnant again. For reasons never revealed, Lawson simply could not take on the burden of a third child. So, she paid Zimmerly $4 for an illegal abortion.
As they still are today, so-called "back-alley" abortions were, in the '30s, a significant cause of maternal mortality. Clinics - a repugnant euphemism for any space where a cot and lighting could be erected - were unsanitary. The medical practitioners were usually substandard and greedy. Zimmerly was a poster-boy for such medical malpractice. His instruments were literally covered with rust, and his "hospital" beds were blood-soaked. Not getting an infection after one of Zimmerly's procedures was a miracle.
Into this hell hole stepped Mrs. Lawson. She expected to be home within several days. When she didn't return, her family went to Zimmerly's farmhouse, demanding to see her. Zimmerly told the family Lawson had indeed arrived, but changed her mind about terminating the pregnancy. He drove her back to the train station himself, he said.
The family waited several more agonizing days. Gloria Lawson did not come home. They then did what must have been incredibly difficult eight decades ago: they went to the Lancaster County Sheriff's Department to tell the whole story, and to ask that the Zimmerly farm be searched. No one was prepared for what was found.
The horrors started in the driveway. It was paved with ash, throughout which small pieces of bone were scattered. Inside the home, officers found blood-stained floors and a recently used - still unwashed - butcher knife. Strands of blond hair, which fit Mrs. Lawson's description, were found wrapped around wires in a bed frame. The whole scene looked very much like a slaughterhouse. And just when it seemed things couldn't get more vile, they discovered 17-year-old Elsie Miller, another of Zimmerly's "patients," still alive but just barely.
Zimmerly refused to speak to authorities. His hired help, on the other hand, decided that self-preservation was the better part of valor. Twenty-two-year-old housekeeper Blanche Stone was the first to speak up. She said Zimmerly confessed to her that Lawson "was gone." She had died sometime between daybreak and 8 A.M. on March 16th.
Richard Parker was, as the neighbors called him, Zimmerly's "hired man." He was also a narcotics addict. Feeding this habit was, apparently, how Zimmerly maintained Parker's loyalty. But even Parker knew when the jig was up. He told investigators that Zimmerly had asked him to sharpen the butcher knife shortly after Lawson's arrival. Parker described watching Zimmerly later leaning over her lifeless body, hacking it into pieces.
This story was corroborated by a pathologist who testified that Zimmerly dismembered the body into chunks small enough to fit in his furnace. Once burned, the ashes were dumped onto various piles throughout the surrounding grounds. He never bothered to sift out the identifiable bits of human remains. As investigators expanded their search into the woods surrounding Zimmerly's farmhouse, they found bone fragments of what they believed to be several additional women. In the pre-DNA era, however, these suspicions were never proven.
One question was answered. State police detectives learned the real reason Zimmerly had left Pittsburgh. In 1919, the same year he'd moved to Lancaster County, the doctor was convicted in Allegheny County court of performing "illegal operations." For Zimmerly, the move to southeastern Pennsylvania was a new start for his old and bloody business.
On June 14, 1935 Zimmerly was found guilty of not murder, but rather "performing an illegal operation that cost a woman's life." The maximum penalty for this charge was seven years. Sentencing was deferred until the conclusion of his trial for illegally operating on Elsie Miller. In total, Zimmerly received a sentence of 7 1/2 years in the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. As fate would have it, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage six months shy of his release date.
In January 1936 there was an unusual exhibit at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. It displayed relics of famous Pennsylvania crimes. Included among the macabre artifacts were the bones and clothing of Gloria Lawson. Decades before the likes of In Cold Blood and Making A Murderer became book and television sensations, the true crimes of Dr. Henry C. Zimmerly were already attracting a wide audience. ☁