Hazel Lee Drew: The real-life killing which inspired the 'Twin Peaks' series

Hazel Lee Drew: The real-life killing which inspired the 'Twin Peaks' series

I’m a big fan of the Twin Peaks series, and now the revival has done so well, it seems its place in popular culture has been cemented forever. Hardly surprising. When the series first made its debut way back in 1990, the tropes subverted and the conventions of drama it deconstructed changed the way television drama was told forever. Twin Peaks was a cinematic experience, where just as much thought and professionalism went into its production as a feature-length movie. It was one of the first TV shows (outside the kitsch soap operas it often parodies) to focus on arc-based storytelling; where viewers had to keep up with the story week-by-week.

Now that the new series has wrapped up (for good it seems) it’s as good a time as any to examine the origins of the surreal, dreamlike, and often terrifying show which first captivated viewers around the world. The show was the brainchild of renowned director David Lynch and writer Mark Frost. Lynch had already made a name for himself with dark, bizarre movies such as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. Lynch intended the Twin Peaks series to be something of a spiritual sequel to Blue Velvet, which had also starred Kyle McLaughlin as an (albeit amateur) investigator delving into the crime and corruption hidden behind a saccharine American facade. Frost had recently had success in television production with the police procedural Hill Street Blues. The two men made the perfect team.

Show creators David Lynch and Mark Frost. Credit: Getty

Lynch has stated that the genesis of the show began with a vision of the corpse of homecoming queen Laura Palmer found wrapped in a plastic sheet. When sketching out the overall plot, Frost was reminded of a story that his grandmother had told him as a child, about a grisly unsolved murder which had occurred in her hometown. This crime formed the basis of the TV show: the killing of Hazel Lee Drew. But what were the real facts of the case, and how exactly do they correlate with TV fiction?

The crime took place in the little town of Sand Lakes, New York. As a boy, Frost spent many a summer vacation in the tranquil mountainside community. Despite being such a cold case, something about the homicide seemed to hold people in its aged grip. In an interview about the show, Frost stated that “The inspiration… sprang from a nightmarish little bedtime story my grandmother Betty Calhoun planted in my ear as a young boy” - namely that the victim’s ghost haunted the area around the lake.

At approximately 7.30pm, July 17, 1908, 20-year-old domestic servant Hazel Drew was seen walking along the secluded Taborton Road by Teal lake to pick raspberries. Tarborton Road was usually only frequented by poachers and hunters. It was there that she encountered two men: Frank Smith, a mentally impaired farmhand who harboured a deep-seated attraction to Drew, and charcoal peddler Rudolph Gundrum. Both were riding in a carriage when they hailed Drew in passing. That was the last time the young woman was seen alive.

Days later her mutilated body was recovered by shocked fishermen. The coroner’s report soon determined that Drew had been brutally beaten to death with a blunt object. Blunt force trauma had fatally shattered her skull, pushing fragments of broken cranium into her brain, while a loop of corset string had been tied in a noose around her throat. Drew had been attacked so savagely, and the cool waters of the pond had mottled and bloated her remains so horrendously, she could only be identified through her dental records. A murder investigation was launched immediately.

Much like Laura Palmer, Hazel Drew was a seemingly-wholesome woman, known for her polite and kindly manner and her profound beauty. She was the apple of many a young man’s eye in the town. Yet the inquiries into her suspicious death dragged a number of less-than-proper secrets into the light. To modern readers, Drew’s vices probably seem quaint and harmless, but in conservative, turn-of-the-century America, they were every bit as shocking as Laura Palmer’s drug abuse and sexual promiscuity.

Drew was discovered to have been in correspondence with several men, some married, and had been meeting them in clandestine circumstances. Rensselaer County authorities, led by District Attorney Jarvis P. O’Brien, discovered dozens of postcards and letters addressed to many supposed lovers. Rumours of affairs circulated, and of opium and alcohol. As far as the townsfolk were concerned, there was no man living within a hundred mile radius who hadn’t carried a torch for her.

The police were not short of potential suspects. On the contrary, they were overwhelmed by possibilities. The most obvious candidate was teenager Frank Smith, whose impeded cognitive faculties had already made him something of a pariah in the community, and his “melancholy attitude” and contradictory statements seemed to peg him as the culprit. However, a number of corroborating alibis managed to exonerate him, so the search continued. Edwin Knauff a dentist who had proposed to Drew was suggested as the murderer, as well as Professor Edward Cary, who employed Drew as a governess.

An image of murder victim Hazel Lee Drew, the victim who inspired the Twin Peaks series Credit: Public domain

Local Sand Lakes history teacher John Hughes told the Daily Mail: “"Reporters came from all over America and some were very tabloid-ish. There was speculation about Hazel's involvement with four older businessmen, including the man who owned the funeral home where her body was taken.”

Police authorities even suspected local millionaire, Henry Kramroth, of being guilty of the crime. Much like seedy real estate developer, Benjamin Horne, Kramroth also owned a stake in a salacious establishment, rumoured to be a front for a prostitution ring and connected with drug smuggling and human trafficking. Some people even reported hearing screams coming from the bar around the predicted time of the murder. Kramroth was eventually let off the hook, although it’s now impossible to say whether this was because of his genuine innocence, or whether his power and influence allowed him to escape being charged.

Eventually, a local newspaper claimed that Drew had died accidentally - that a passing motorist had knocked her down, and, fearing manslaughter charges, had thrown her body into the water and made his escape. "After five days of careful investigation,” it concluded, “in which many theories have been advanced, a motive for the murder is lacking. Nothing has been learned that would warrant the authorities in making an arrest in connection with the crime." But although the press considered the matter settled, the locals did not, and stories and theories were passed around for decades.

Twin Peaks series Screenwriter Mark Frost. Credit: Getty

Twin Peaks series co-creator, Mark Frost, is sceptical of the traffic collision theory to say the least. In an interview with the Washington Post he stated: "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."

This may well be true. But ever since 1990, countless avid fans asked themselves over and over "who killed Laura Palmer?" In that sense, even if she is only a footnote, an inspiration for something far beyond the technology and culture of her own time, Hazel Drew’s legacy will not go unremembered.