Solved with no body: The case of Thora Chamberlain
Updated: Jan 7, 2022
On a Friday afternoon in 1945, a group of teenage girls set out to attend their high school’s football game, something teenagers in the United States still do regularly even today. But the events of this afternoon would be anything but normal. Let’s talk about Thora Chamberlain, who hasn’t been seen since that day over 75 years ago.
Thora Afton Chamberlain was born on November 22, 1930 and grew up in San Jose, California. She was described as very religious, quiet, sweet and not particularly boy crazy. Several articles described Thora as a ‘bobby soxer,’ a term derived from the ankle socks that were popular at the time. The term referred to teenage girls who were fans of popular singers at the time like Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra.
By 1945, 14-year-old Thora was a sophomore at Campbell Union High School in Campbell, California. On the afternoon of Friday, November 2, Thora left school just after 3 pm with a group of her friends. The group was headed to their school’s football game and Thora was wearing red and blue socks to support her team. Unfortunately, she would never make it to the game.
As they were leaving, a man pulled up to the curb by the school in a black sedan. He called some of the girls over, saying he needed someone to babysit his sister’s children for about half an hour. The man was wearing a Navy uniform — something that could have made him appear more trustworthy — but most of the girls were reluctant to take him up on his offer. Thora, however, said she’d be happy to do it. She climbed into his car and asked her friends to save her a seat at the game. They drove off, and Thora was never seen again.
When Thora didn’t come home that night, her parents and the police began looking for her. Investigators also interviewed a witness in nearby Saratoga who said she saw a car speeding down the road around 3:30 pm. According to her, there was a girl inside the car who looked like she was scared and was clawing at the back window. But despite this lead and the extensive searches, nothing was found at first.
About two weeks into the investigation, the FBI got involved. It was an FBI agent who brought up the name Henry McMonigle. A former bus driver from Illinois, McMonigle had served prison time in his home state for attempted rape. He’d also allegedly assault eda teenage girl in San Mateo County, where he now lived, earlier that year.
The FBI started tracking McMonigle, who soon took a bus back to Illinois. He returned to California on December 6, and attempted to take his own life on the bus by ingesting sleeping pills. He recovered from this and, after being discharged from the hospital, he was questioned by police.
During these interviews, McMonigle confessed to killing Thora. According to him, he drove them to Santa Cruz via highway 17, then kept going for about 70 miles north up highway 1. Then he shot her and threw her body down a 300 foot cliff at Devil’s Slide. He also admitted the Navy uniform he’d been wearing at the time had been stolen a few weeks before the murder.
On December 14th and 15th, investigators searched the cliff McMonigle said he’d thrown Thora’s body over. They found a piece of red cloth resembling the skirt she’d been wearing when she went missing, as well as yellow cloth resembling her ribbon. Red and blue socks were also found wedged in a crevice about 3/4 of the way down the cliff. The socks were later identified as Thora’s.
McMonigle claimed that when he shot Thora, the bullet passed through her and got stuck in his car door. Then he’d ripped out the upholstery, now stained with her blood, and buried it in the construction yard where he worked at the time. He also said he buried the bullet under a tree. Investigators found the bullet under the tree where he said he’d buried it, and upholstery stained with blood was found at the construction yard, just where he said it would be. They also found several more items belonging to Thora there, including her shoes, school books, binder and a cowbell she was planning to use at the football game. They also found a gun that matched the one McMonigle said he shot her with.
After these items were found, McMonigle changed his story. He said he’d actually chocked Thora to death, then later that he stabbed her, buried her body in a drainage ditch or that he didn’t kill her at all, that her death was an accident that occurred when she fell out of his car. But the first story he’d told police was the one most consistent with the evidence.
Thora’s friends identified McMonigle in a lineup and through photos. After this he was arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.
McMonigle’s trial began on January 31, 1946. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity.
Prosecutors said McMonigle killed Thora after she refused his sexual advances, and that he might have raped or at least attempted to rape her. McMonigle claimed Thora’s death was an accident, that she’d fallen out of his car and he’d buried her body along the road.
But the jury didn’t buy this. On February 20, 1946, he was convicted of first degree murder after the jury deliberated for less than an hour. The following month, he was sentenced to death. According to executedtoday.com, McMonigle was one of the first people in the United States to be convicted of murder without a body.
Dorothy Rose Jones
In April of 1946, the body of 23-year-old Dorothy Rose Jones was found buried at Devil’s Slide. McMonigle confessed to strangling her and burying her body there the previous October. After this, he was temporarily released from prison to help with another attempt to find Thora’s body. Despite all of the searches, Thora’s body has never been found; it was presumably been washed out to sea.
McMonigle was never charged in Dorothy Rose Jones’s murder since he was already on death row for Thora’s murder. He would eventually claim to have killed eleven people, but this has never been confirmed.
resurrecting the dead
While he was in prison, McMonigle got involved in some strange dealings. He read about Dr. Robert Cornish, a Berkeley scientist who claimed to have killed and resurrected dogs. Now, Dr. Cornish wanted to perform his experiments on a death row inmate to see if he could revive a human. (I could never find a reason why he wanted a death row inmate specifically.)
McMonigle volunteered his own body for Dr. Cornish to use after he was executed, and Cornish put in a request. But his request was denied by the warden at San Quentin, where McMonigle was imprisoned. In order for the experiment to work. Cornish would need McMonigle’s body immediately after he died, but it would need to stay in the gas chamber for at least an hour to allow the gas to safety dissipate.
There has been some interesting debate around this matter. For instance, if McMonigle had been successfully revived, would he have to be released from prison? After all, he had been sentenced to death, and that sentence had already been carried out. But, of course, this is purely hypothetical. Despite numerous appeals, McMonigle was executed via the gas chamber at San Quentin on February 20, 1948.
I haven’t seen much talk or speculation of Thora’s remains ever being found, and I don’t know that it’s very likely. This case is similar to the Chillingworth murders in that regard, another case that is technically closed but still leaves some questions.