Lady in the Lake: The Mysterious Death of Sphinx Barmaid Shirley Parker
On June 2, 1969, an electrical crew was dispatched by the Baltimore County Bureau of Highways to repair two burned-out lights in the fountain at the center of Druid Park Lake. The first man to climb the ladder and look down over the rim made a gruesome discovery: The body of a woman was lying face down in about two feet of water in a depression inside the top of the fountain. The body was quickly identified as that of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker, a 35-year-old African-American divorcee, who’d disappeared five weeks earlier “under mysterious circumstances,” according to The Baltimore Evening Sun.
Shirley Parker was a bookkeeper, barmaid, and waitress at Baltimore’s famous Sphinx Club. Beautiful, vivacious and popular, she was a secretary in a branch of the Urban League and volunteered for the NAACP. She’d been married twice, first to a man who lived in Pennsylvania, and then to a disk jockey named Joe Parker, who owned a record store on Edmondson Avenue. She was the mother of two sons, one who lived with his father in Pennsylvania and a second, David, who lived with Shirley and her mother.
The story of Shirley Parker’s last evening contains some contradictions. Most agree she was last seen on the evening of April 23, 1969, fashionably dressed in brown hip-hugger slacks, a yellow, orange and white print blouse, a rust-colored coat and pile-lined, knee-length boots. At the time, she’d been dating (and supporting) a 33-year-old man named Arno West. The night she disappeared, Mrs. Parker had gone to meet friends at a bar on Pennsylvania Avenue where, during the evening, she’d learned that Arno West had used her paycheck to buy a pants suit for another girlfriend, a woman who worked for the Social Security Administration.
According to witnesses, Shirley stormed out of the bar around midnight and went directly to Gwynns Falls Parkway, where West lived with his mother. Neighbors say they heard the couple arguing loudly on the porch. West later told police that Shirley was “very upset,” but denied the claim that he gave her “a nasty blow.” After their fight, however, the couple seems to have calmed down. West took Shirley out to another bar, then to visit friends. According to the Afro-American newspaper, “Mrs. Parker seemed angered about some matter and that he took her for a drive to cool off.”
After the drive, West said Shirley asked him to drop her off her in Druid Hill Park, near the lake. “After she got out of the car on Cloverdale Road, near the park, and started walking, he told police he became worried and followed her,” reported the newspaper, adding that before he drove off, West noticed Shirley climbing over the 15-foot-high iron railing around the lake. He returned to the scene, then “he handed her purse to her after she was persuaded not to enter the lake.” He then drove her home, according to West, though Shirley’s mother, Theresa Wright, said Shirley never came home that night. Later that week, according to West, he noticed Shirley’s purse hanging from the inside of the railing surrounding the lake in Druid Hill Park and reported it to the police.
Those who knew her say Shirley Parker just wasn’t the kind of person to leave home with no explanation, and her family was immediately alarmed. A nationwide search led to sightings as far away as California. One woman claimed she’d seen Shirley in Baltimore the morning after she was reported missing. A Baltimore medium said she was getting vibrations in the case and promised she’d soon have an answer. She predicted that Shirley’s death “will soon reveal one of the most horrible crimes in history.” Three weeks later, baffled by the lack of clues, the police dragged the lake in Druid Hill Park, but no body was found.
That’s because Shirley’s body wasn’t in the lake, but in the fountain, where it was discovered on June 2. But what was she doing in the fountain, and how did she get there? Her body too decomposed for the coroner to determine the means of death, only to rule out several causes. She wasn’t strangled or stabbed, and she hadn’t used narcotics. “There were no needle marks, and we were particularly interested in whether she died this way,” said Dr. Edward Wilson, an assistant medical examiner, in an interview with the Afro-American. Dr. Ronald Kornblum, also an assistant medical examiner, reported to the Afro-American that the body showed no gunshot wounds, but it was “possible other indications of foul play had been washed or decayed away.” The recorded verdict was death by hypothermia, though Kornblum admits, “it is possible she was drowned before she was placed in the fountain,” though not possible that she drowned herself.
“It remains a questionable death but was never a murder,” Sgt. Roger Nolan, the supervisor of the Baltimore Police Department’s Cold Case Squad, told The Baltimore Sun.
Reportedly, Shirley was upset when she went missing, which might suggest suicide. She was a strong swimmer who’d won awards for the sport in the past. Perhaps she tried to drown herself and found it more difficult than she’d anticipated, making her way to the fountain in the middle of the lake. Did she climb up the fountain to signal for help? If so, why, in this busy park, did nobody hear her shouting? If she’d changed her mind about suicide, why not simply swim back to the bank? It’s hard to believe anyone would choose to commit suicide by sitting in the middle of a fountain until they died of hypothermia; it could take hours just to lose consciousness, especially on a hot summer night.
Yet the other possibilities seem equally remote. Some believe Shirley was drowned or knocked unconscious by Arno West, who then hid her body hidden in the middle of the fountain and, if she was still alive, left her to die. But the body bore no signs of trauma, and even though West was reportedly a strong swimmer, could he really have dragged the body of a 100-pound woman, dressed in her coat and boots, three hundred feet across the lake? Even if that were possible, could he then have pulled her body 20 feet up the long metal ladder at the side of the fountain?
Unsurprisingly, after Shirley’s body was discovered, witnesses appeared with memories they’d previously forgotten to mention. Some said they saw a rowboat on the water that night; others say they saw Arno West looking at the fountain through a pair of binoculars. West failed a lie detector test; nevertheless, he was released without charge, since no crime had been committed. According to the Afro-American, the police referred to missing links in the case, inconsistencies, and “possibilities beyond belief.”
Forty-two years later, a mystery still hangs over this act of violence or despair.
Mikita Brottman teaches literature and film studies at MICA.