By Peter Zablocki
Robert Illingworth was driving down Old Boonton Road in Denville. It was a cold night, and all he could think of was getting home. It was Monday, October 30th, 1933, the night before Halloween. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he found his car heading right for a mysterious woman walking on the side of the road. As Robert swung his vehicle out of the way, the automobile skidded and came to a stop in the middle of the dark country road. He promptly got out and went back to check on the woman. It did not take long for him to realize, that apart from the plethora of stars in the sky above him, he was alone. Funny, he thought, she looked just like… No, that would be impossible. And yet, he was sure he had just seen Martha Jane Cooper.
By Wednesday morning, Illingworth’s sighting was just one of multiple reports of the 71-year-old woman being spotted in the wooden section off Boonton Road, the location of her home, and the last place she had ever been seen alive before her disappearance on August 15 of that same year. As Martha’s potential abduction became Denville’s most infamous cold case, local newspapers still reported her sightings on, or around Halloween for years to come. The last article in Denville Herald alluding to the elder woman being seen near Boonton Road was November 2, 1937 – four years after her vanishing.
Martha Jane, a seamstress by profession, lived on a hillside farm on the west slope of the Tourne in Denville, on land which she had inherited. As her home was away from the center of Denville, the old lady, who was considered thrifty by many, often sought car rides into town from strangers – hence once her disappearance was known, many thought she simply got lost. Yet, what really hindered the investigation was the fact that two weeks had passed before anyone reported her missing in the first place. The estate’s gardener, one Leonard Carnerio, related how on August 15, two women – strangers both to him and his mistress – arrived on the estate in [a red car]. They told him they were taking Miss Cooper to Parsippany for a two week stay. Miss Cooper, visibly flustered, said nothing to the gardener as she left, but he recalled that the women had sent her back into the house for a satchel before departing.
Once the groundskeeper contacted the missing woman’s sister, she turned the case over to the authorities. The $500 reward she posted for any information leading to the return of her sister was never collected, nor her sister found. As months passed without any luck locating the red car (which belonged to someone in Union County, based on the U designation on its license plate), nor finding any clues, the investigation was all but heading towards being unsolved. “Kidnapping… either for money or revenge,” was the theory police pursued most keenly. The impetus for this belief stemmed from Miss Cooper’s twice a week bank visits and withdrawals, “in amounts which authorities believe more than necessary for the estate’s running expenses,” weeks prior to the abduction. It was made known that the elderly lady had at some point inherited extensive real estate holdings from her father’s estate which she sold for large sums of money. The belief of kidnapping for money, however, did not yield any new evidence, as Martha’s bank account remained untouched after her alleged kidnapping, despite the still very large sum of money it contained.
As the investigation continued, Detective Daniel Allen of Morris County, discovered that a man and a woman came to visit Martha Cooper on August 13. It was the same woman, this time accompanied by another, who came back and drove the lady away from her home never to be seen again. After the Halloween sightings, Det. Allen ordered agents to scour the woodlands and countryside around Denville and Parsippany for several weeks on the possibility that Miss Cooper may have been murdered. With all other leads exhausted, mediums were called in. The new consensus from the psychics was that Martha’s body was buried nearby her home and under shallow ground, but even that proved to be a dead end. Following on the tipoff from the mediums that the body was nearby, Thomas R. Moses, chairman of the police committee, ordered a small pond on Diamond Spring Road near the Cooper home to be pumped out by the Denville Fire Department. Men then explored the water in the center of the pond with rakes and grappling irons. Nothing was found.
Three years after the disappearance of Miss Cooper, newly promoted Chief Jenkins of the Denville Police Department and town’s Tax Collector, J. Elmer Vanderhoof went to Philadelphia to view a body of an aged amnesia victim in the Philadelphia General Hospital on the suspicion that it was Miss Cooper. The mysterious woman had wandered into the grounds of the hospital not remembering who she was before succumbing to sickness and dying. Yet upon, examining the body, Vanderhoof, who knew Miss Cooper personally, proclaimed this woman not to be the missing Denville resident.
Perhaps Miss Cooper’s remains still lie buried near her old home on Old Boonton Road. Perhaps they was disposed of in the quicksand near her estate which forced the Denville Trolley line to abandon running its track through it. Perhaps, you will see her ghost walking the road once more this Halloween. But for those parts of the story, you will need to come and visit the Denville Museum and read our town historian, Vito Bianco’s investigation into the town’s most infamous cold case. Until then, Happy Halloween from your friends at the Denville Historical Society and Museum!
Peter Zablocki is a local historian and vice-president of the Denville Historical Society. He is also a co-host of a weekly podcast, “History Teachers Talking.”