Real Life Royston Vasey?
January 4, 2013 12:51 PM   Subscribe

Are there any real-life historical examples of the Small Town With A Terrible Secret horror trope? Towns where long-term, ongoing crimes (or unsavory religious practices one supposes) where purposefully covered up and kept hidden from the outside world and any attempt to investigate them resulted in the investigator being detained, thrown out, or killed?
posted by The Whelk to Grab Bag (35 answers total) 121 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't quite fit exactly but I immediately thought of Matinicus Island in Maine
posted by Blasdelb at 12:55 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's this: a murder of a well known bully in the town of Skidmore, MO. The townspeople keep quiet for more than 30 years and it's still unsolved. No one's even been charged.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:57 PM on January 4, 2013 [22 favorites]

Phenix City, AL?
posted by joecacti at 1:01 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did you have a specific example with Phenix City, because it wasn't exactly a secret that it was Sin City.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:03 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Colorado City, AZ/Hildale, UT somewhat fits - it's a town founded specifically to facilitate fundamentalist polygamous practices.

Though the polygamous practices and the main religious groups that operate there are not very secret, the town is run in such a way as to try to keep the details as secret as possible and make prosecution as difficult as possible.

"Detained, thrown out, or killed" probably doesn't fit but stonewalled and designed to be as inaccessible as possible to outside investigators, certainly does. Also they certainly have detained, thrown out, and maybe even killed or certainly threatened some of their own people who resisted the system or were seen as threats to the leadership of the various religious groups.
posted by flug at 1:04 PM on January 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

As far as I know no investigators were harmed, but the longterm tolerance for large amounts of child sex abuse in the Pitcairn Islands comes close.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:04 PM on January 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

It's not unsolved, but it definitely fits that weird small town cult vibe. Making it better, it's a small, remote island. Whoops, already posted, but a different story.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:11 PM on January 4, 2013

Not sure if this qualifies, but there were some pretty bad things going on with regards to Pine Ridge Reservation in the late 60s and 70s, and people who asked questions seemed to turn up dead on the sides of the road or at the bottom of steep cliffs in remote parts of the reservation.

In the sense of investigators being killed or harmed, the 'investigators' weren't actual investigators from what I've read, but people with strong ties or sympathies with the American Indian Movement.

Like I said, that may not be what you're asking for.
posted by wolfgirl at 1:15 PM on January 4, 2013

Tulia, TX?
posted by kelseyq at 1:15 PM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Right now I'd reckon Steubenville, Ohio fits this pretty closely.
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:17 PM on January 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

Colonia Dignidad?
posted by tabubilgirl at 1:24 PM on January 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

You, sir, need to watch more 20/20. Probably half the episodes are like this. (Granted, it's been a few years since I've watched it, but...)
posted by phunniemee at 1:25 PM on January 4, 2013

There's something like this in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. Reproduced here. Not quite Royston Vasey (no investigators killed, no ongoing nastiness) but it's a village closing ranks against the police to protect its murderous own.
posted by pont at 1:36 PM on January 4, 2013

There is a strong indication that many people in the town of Fayetteville, WV know who was responsible for the fire that led to the death/disappearance of the Sodder children in 1945, but no one ever spoke up.
posted by msali at 1:51 PM on January 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

Lovell, Wyoming. Well, I guess the "investigator getting killed/thrown out" part doesn't fit, but there was definitely a long-term deeply destructive secret.
posted by newrambler at 2:26 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

And then there's Jonestown, of course, but that is probably way past what you mean.
posted by SLC Mom at 2:27 PM on January 4, 2013

Vernon, Florida (a/k/a "Nub City"), though rumors were unsubstantiated, apparently.
posted by Ms. Toad at 2:31 PM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Bountiful BC. For years, people knew that they were a Mormon off-shoot and that they practiced polygamy. What was kept hidden was child "marriage" and forced sex, traffic and kidnap across international boundaries to hide that, as well as abuse and the driving out of the younger male population to keep the patriarchs in "wives". Prosecutors have jailed some of the worst, but it's still festering.
posted by bonehead at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2013

Would Pitcairn's problems count? ("The islands are best known as home of the descendants of the Bounty mutineers...")
posted by kmennie at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2013

Pitcairn Island sexual abuse scandal
posted by bq at 2:43 PM on January 4, 2013

Maddy Scott, one of the girls that went missing on the Highway of Tears in Northern BC. Not too long afterwards, the body of a local young man was found (well, parts of his body) on a nearby Native Reservation. The word on the street up there was that the locals knew he had murdered her and took justice into their own hands. A lot of the attempts to investigate the various disappearances have been met with opposition because of a general distrust of the RCMP up north.
posted by mannequito at 2:53 PM on January 4, 2013

Towns where long-term, ongoing crimes (or unsavory religious practices one supposes) where purposefully covered up and kept hidden from the outside world and any attempt to investigate them resulted in the investigator being detained, thrown out, or killed?

Any number of drug-growing communities in Latin America.
posted by empath at 3:22 PM on January 4, 2013

State College, Pennsylvania.

Some conspiracy theorists think that the 2005 disappearance of Centre County (PA) district attorney Ray Gricar was linked to his declining to press charges against Jerry Sandusky upon the initial reports of child sex abuse in 1998.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:33 PM on January 4, 2013

Would Colonia Dignidad count?
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:50 PM on January 4, 2013

Love Canal isn't exactly what you're looking for, but it's relevant.
posted by Slinga at 5:28 PM on January 4, 2013

Cline Falls, Oregon?? at least according to Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise, the town knew the dude who attacked her & her friend with an axe/ran them over in a pickup truck/nearly killed them, but didn't prosecute him.
posted by staboo at 6:13 PM on January 4, 2013

Bakersfield, CA? (bonus: gay)
posted by gingerbeer at 6:55 PM on January 4, 2013

The Jordan Minnesota affair wasn't exactly secret ... possibly the the inverse of what you are looking for but possibly cogent?
posted by specialk420 at 10:41 PM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Various communities where "honor killings" take place. Example:
"The witness to the murder of a young Ramle woman, who was to testify against the victim's brother, has been missing for three weeks, and police suspect she may have been murdered. The police believe the witness' brother, Musalah Abu-Ganem, may be involved in her disappearence. He is in police custody, and the Ramle Magistrate's Court extended his remand on Monday for three days, due to lack of real evidence against him. (...)
In the past seven years, eight Abu-Ganem family women have been murdered in the context of "family honor." After Hamda Abu-Ganem's murder, women of the family, many of whom have experienced threats against their lives, decided to testify against Rashad Abu-Ganem.

After the women testified, detectives from the Shefelah District Central Unit offered them police protection. Some accepted it, but subsequently many left their safe-houses and returned to Joarish, although they were warned by police that their lives were in danger. Y. also came home after a short stay in a safe-house."

"A few young criminals in Juarish set up a group that decides which of the women has violated the honor of the family," said Ezra. "For instance, if a woman spoke to someone on a cell phone, or laughed with a man, that is sometimes considered a violation of the family honor, from their perspective. They plan how the murder will take place, who will carry it out and even find an alibi for the murderer. From the moment someone is marked, there is no way out. (...) After the fate of these young girls has been determined, no one does anything to help them," said Ezra." (...)
"The police invest tremendous effort in every such murder case, but the work involved is much harder because there is a phenomenon of silent consent to these murders - whether from fear or because of worldview," he said. (...)
"The hardest part at these crime scenes is the quiet: Each time my stomach turns over in finding the body of a young girl, and around her the house is quiet. Everyone stands silent. There is no crying, there is no shouting and there is no cooperation."

If you can trust Google on this, there is no recent news about this case. It seems nobody was convicted for killing eight young women in a small town.

Another example: the Branch Davidians in Waco.
posted by iviken at 3:52 AM on January 5, 2013

This is also a theme in trash literature, such as Peyton Place. Grace Metalious' book, which was a composite of Gilmanton, Gilford, Laconia and Manchester, was based on actual buried scandals Metalious knew from these towns, and, after she died, locals were still so scandalized that they tried to bar Metalious from getting buried in the Gilmanton cemetery.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:28 AM on January 5, 2013

Heard this on the Thanksgiving episode of "This American Life". Mankato,Minnesota

excerpt from the show's page

Growing up in Mankato, Minnesota, John Biewen says, nobody ever talked about the most important historical event ever to happen there: in 1862, it was the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged after a war with white settlers. John went back to Minnesota to figure out what really happened 150 years ago, and why Minnesotans didn’t talk about it much after.
posted by radsqd at 8:51 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Long before Steubenville's current situation (as linked above by tapir-whorf), it apparently had a history of being Sin City for southeastern Ohio & northwestern West Virginia.

Weird and Wacky Steubenville.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:01 AM on January 5, 2013

2bucksplus: There's this: a murder of a well known bully in the town of Skidmore, MO. The townspeople keep quiet for more than 30 years and it's still unsolved. No one's even been charged.
Grew up near Skidmore: this, although every single person who lived in the general area knows who did the killing - not specific names, but those wouldn't be hard to figure out. They were the men who gathered in the church beforehand; town leaders. Impossible to prove, esp. because (at least at the time) Missouri law required a witness for Murder charges. If I had personally witnessed Ken Rex' last minute (as his child-rape-victim/wife did), they wouldn't need threats to make me forget what I saw; that man needed killing for the safety of all.

Related: In nearby Maryville MO a black man was accused in the 30s/40s (not sure) of raping a schoolteacher. A mob came for him; the jail released him; he was burnt alive on top of the schoolhouse. OK: pretty typical (horrible, sickening) lynchmob.

The relevant part is that a friend of mine who was a college teacher decided to research the event. The local library has almost all newspapers from the weeks before and the weeks after, but none from that date. And, of course, if you talk to locals, although the whole town knew about it (a human sacrifice in a small town, FFS!), they only know about the details third-hand.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2013

This is the resource you're looking for [WARNING, THIS IS SUPER GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING]. It is slowly being forgotten, but lynchings in America were carefully documented by the people who did them as souvenir postcards that show them being performed in small towns in public square that are still there today.

Also, here is an interactive map of where they happened. There are undoubtedly many people who are alive today who, as children, picked over the corpses of lynching victims for teeth or bits of flesh or clothing as souvenirs of their white supremacy while their communities looked on in approval. The parents of those slain can be reasonably expected to be gone by now, but many of their brothers, sisters, cousins, children and friends are still among us. We are even still continuing to jail people for lynchings we know they orchestrated once and there are bridges still standing and used daily that were used as impromptu gallows.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:24 PM on January 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

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