The Circleville Letters

Hey, Readers. Another Monday has rolled around, so that means it’s time for another mystery. This one is certainly baffling and is still unsolved. It’s been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles as well as episodes of Unsolved Mysteries and 48 Hours.

There has been lots of speculation, but just who was this mysterious letter writer? Read on.

cars, street, buildings

Main Street, Circleville, Ohio. (Photo by Analogue Kid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Circleville, Ohio is a quaint midwestern town located about twenty-five miles south of Columbus on the Scioto River. It’s best known for the Circleville Pumpkin Show, an annual event that dates back to 1903. It’s not the sort of place you would expect anything sinister to occur.

But that’s exactly what happened.

In 1977, residents of the small town began receiving anonymous letters that detailed personal information about their lives. No one was exempt—newspapers, elected officials, and private citizens were all recipients.

Mary Gillespie, a wife, mother, and school bus driver was the main target. The letters claimed she was having an affair with school superintendent Gordon Massie.

“I know where you live. I’ve been observing your house and know you have children. This is no joke. Please take it serious.”

The envelope was postmarked Columbus, Ohio.

Mary’s husband, Ron Gillespie, also received a letter “informing” him of the alleged affair and stating that if he didn’t do anything to stop it, he could end up dead.

“Mr. Gillespie, your wife is seeing Gordon Massie. … You should catch them together and kill them both. … He doesn’t deserve to live.”

“We know what kind of car you drive … We know where your kids go to school.”

Mary was on vacation in Florida with her sister-in-law on August 19, 1977, when Ron received a phone call, supposedly from the anonymous letter writer. He told his daughter he was going to confront the letter writer. He was traveling at a high rate of speed, lost control of his truck, went off the road, hit a tree, and was killed.

At the time of his death, Ron had almost twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system, but those closest to him stated he was not a heavy drinker. Beneath Ron’s body was a .22 caliber revolver. One shot had been fired. Some questioned if Ron had been shooting at the letter writer. The coroner ruled his death an accident, but his brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, believed Ron had been murdered and pressed the sheriff to continue the investigation.

The letters didn’t stop after Ron’s death. Both Mary Gillespie and Gordon Massie continued to receive threats. Letters arrived at various businesses, government offices, schools, and other Circleville residents.

Mary had always denied having an affair with Massie, but after Ron’s death, Mary and Gordon began seeing one another. The threats escalated.

“It’s your daughter’s turn to pay for what you’ve done.”

On February 7, 1983, Mary was driving her empty school bus when she saw a handmade sign on a fence about her daughter. She stopped, got off the bus, then attempted to remove the sign. But when she did, she discovered it was rigged to twine and a box. She took the box home. Inside was a handgun rigged to go off. Mary contacted the police.

Investigators from Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation found the serial number on the gun belonged to a coworker of Paul Freshour. According to 48 Hours, he admitted he’d sold the gun to Paul.

Paul’s estranged wife Karen—a sister to Ron Gillespie—told police that Paul was responsible for the letters and was furious with Mary over her involvement with Massie. Freshour was cooperative with the police. He admitted it the gun belonged to him but claimed it had been stolen. Paul did not ask for an attorney and he allowed police to search his house and car. He also provided handwriting samples. When he agreed to take a polygraph, he failed.

He was arrested for Mary’s attempted murder, but no charges were ever brought for the letters. Some interesting facts about the case:

  • Mary was allowed to testify about the letters and answer questions from the defense about them. Some experts say this was damaging to Paul’s case.
  • The judge allowed 39 letters to be brought up at trial, due to the fact the writing on the booby trap was similar to the block letters used in the handwritten letters.
  • Handwriting analyses indicated Paul Freshour could have written the letters. A second expert—originally a defense witness—agreed.
  • Paul’s fingerprints were never found on the booby trap or the box with the gun. However, he was off work the same day. The industrial size chalk box containing the gun was similar to those seen at Paul’s workplace, Anheuser Busch.
  • No one saw Paul near the booby trap and he had a fairly good alibi for most of the day.
  • Paul Freshour didn’t take the stand, but multiple defense witnesses testified to seeing him at home.

Paul was sentenced to 7 to 25 years for attempted murder, but some in the community doubted his guilt.

The letters continue to come after Paul was in prison, despite being banned from using paper and pens. The sheriff was convinced it was him but couldn’t answer how he was able to do it, but the prison warden said it was “impossible.”

Eventually, Paul himself received a letter boasting about how they had set him up. 

“When we set him up, we set him up good,” it read.

Paul Freshour served 10 years in prison for the attempted murder of Mary Gillespie. He died on June 20, 2012, at the age of 70. He continued to maintain his innocence. Today, the identity of the Circleville Letter Writer is still unknown.

The Bizarre Deaths at Dyatlov Pass

Hey, readers. This month’s Mystery Monday post also takes us over the waters of the Atlantic to the continent of Europe and the country of Russia. A little warning if you’re a little squeamish.

In 1959 Igor Dyatlov, a 23-year-old radio engineering student at the Ural Polytechnical Institute assembled a group of nine other hikers for a skiing expedition across the northern Urals in Sverdiovsk Oblast in what was then the Soviet Union.

Each member of the group, eight men and two women were experienced Grade II hikers with ski tour experience. Upon their return, all would receive their Grade III certification, the highest certification level in the Soviet Union at that time.

On January 23, 1959, Dyatlov’s group issued their route book which would take them on a course following the number five trail. They departed Sverdiovsk on the same day. One of the original ten members left the expedition on January 28 due to illness. (Incidentally, he lived until 2013, passing away at the age of seventy-five.)

The remaining nine continued the expedition. Sometime between February 1 and 2, all nine died under mysterious circumstances. On the night of the incident, they had set up camp on the slope of a mountain. They apparently enjoyed dinner and got ready for bed but never returned home.

The group’s tomb at Mikhailovskoe Cemetery (Public Domain)

On February 26 a search party found the hikers’ abandoned tent which had been ripped open from the inside. Footprints left by the group were found nearby. Some of them wore socks, others a single shoe, and others were barefoot.

All the footprints led to the edge of a nearby forest. Searchers found two bodies there, shoeless and wearing only underwear. The remaining seven bodies were discovered in the following months.

The cause of death for six of the group was hypothermia. One victim had major skull damage, two others had severe chest trauma, and another had a small crack in the skull. Four of the bodies were found lying in running water. Three of these had soft tissue damage to the head and face. Two were missing their eyes, another was missing the tongue, and another the eyebrows.

Numerous theories as to the cause of death include animal attacks, hypothermia, avalanche, katabatic winds, and infrasound. Infrasound is a phenomenon in which the wind interacts with the topography to create a barely audible hum. This can induce powerful feelings of nausea, panic, dread, chills, nervousness, increased heart rate, and breathing difficulties.

Some speculate the deaths came about because of an attack by a Yeti. The official investigation concluded that a “compelling natural force” caused the deaths.

Russia opened a new investigation in 2019. In 2020, the conclusion that an avalanche had caused the deaths. Survivors were forced to leave camp in low visibility with inadequate clothing and had died of hypothermia.

Andrey Kuryakov, deputy head of the regional prosecutor’s office, said, “It was a heroic struggle. There was no panic. But they had no chance to save themselves under the circumstances.” A scientific study published in 2021 suggested a “slab avalanche” could explain some of the injuries.

But as you might expect, there are some who wonder what really happened to drive these experienced hikers from their tent inadequately clothed in conditions that would lead to certain death.

A nearby mountain pass was renamed Dyatlov Pass in honor of the group’s leader.