A seemingly admirable and usual American man, John List and his family lived happily in New Jersey. He worked as an accountant, bringing a stable income back to his Victorian mansion; home to himself, his wife, three children and his mother. The Lists might have appeared to be the ideal American family, but everything was not as it seemed. 

The List murders were a horrific act of methodical violence, committed by one man against his family. After fleeing the scene and living under an alias for eighteen years, the long-unsolved case of the murders was brought to an end in 1990. Reading an original 1971 newspaper is a fascinating way to see how the press originally reported on the horrific crime. 

llist murder newspapers

Images from the Sunday News, December 12, 1971
The caption for the images reads: “Teenage friends of List children cry after service (left) and pallbearer (right) crises as he carries casket from Redeemer Lutheran Church”

In this blog post, we explore genuine American newspaper content about the case, written between 1971, just after the murders had taken place, and 2008, when List himself passed away. Reading the case through these reports lets us see how the public would have read the shocking news of the murders in the United States, along with the eventual capture and imprisonment of John List. You can even read an original newspaper from the time the murders were discovered in ‘71 by exploring our archive.

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The List Family: Life in Post-War American Society 

Following the Second World War, American society had emphasised the ideal of a traditional family and social structure, following the patriarchal view of the husband at the height of the family. The husband was the breadwinner for the family, bringing in a stable income, while the wife and mother prioritised home life and caring for the children. This notion formed part of the “American Dream,” the desire to lead a simple yet prosperous life in comfort. 

John List and his family were the perfect example of this dream. They lived in a 19-room Victorian mansion, with many luxuries, including a ballroom. John List worked as an accountant and provided a stable income for his family, and was a deeply religious man. He taught at a Sunday school each week and regularly went to church. List strongly believed in American men being independent and self-sufficient, and supporting their families. 

List’s attachment to the ideals of the time, and the expectations of men, made losing his job at the age of 46 extremely difficult for him to cope with. He never told his family that he was in debt, never sought welfare payments out of shame, and secretly transferred money from his mother’s account for the mortgage. As opposed to sharing with his family their financial difficulties, List decided the only option was to kill them.

1971: The List Murders Take Place 

November 9, 1971, began as just another ordinary weekday, with the kids leaving for school and List’s wife, Helen, drinking a coffee in the kitchen. Moments after the kids had vanished out of sight, List pulled out a gun and began an evil mass murder of his family.  

After shooting his wife, he went upstairs and shot his mother, who was still in bed. He waited for two of his children to come home, then he immediately shot them. List then drove to his son’s, John Jr.’s, soccer game to cheer him on. Then, he drove him home before shooting him 10 times. 

Since the bodies were not found for a while, the Sunday News only first reported on the murders on 12 December. Their report states: 

“The four and List’s mother, Alma, 84, were found slain in the family’s decaying mansion in Westfield, apparently shot to death last Nov. 9. They were discovered last Tuesday night.”

List had laid the bodies in their ballroom, left a long note to his pastor explaining his reasoning, played religious songs from the radios in the house and left all the lights on before fleeing the scene. In the note:

“List left specific instructions for the burials – but no money to pay for the funeral. His church paid for the plot in Westfield Cemetery that received the bodies of his wife and children. His mother was to be buried in her home town of Bay City, Mich.”

List had also written in the hope that his pastor would sympathise with his reasoning. He claimed that he feared his family’s relationship with God would unravel, and they would not safely make it to heaven if they continued to live. List alleged that he had saved their souls by ending their lives. The Sunday News reports on his pastor’s response to these claims:

“John, as your pastor, I am still very much your friend who will always support you, stand by you and help you. The Lord God Whom you know and believe in will not forsake you in these most agonizing times…” 

“…Please contact me. If you are prevented by other circumstances at this time, wait, pray and contact me when you can, anytime, day or night…”

“If he is living, he needs some of us…I can come and get him anywhere he is. Wherever he is, I’ll be there.”

At the time of writing the report, the authorities had no idea what had happened to List. They discovered his car at Kennedy International Airport, but they had been unable to trace him any further. The newspaper states:

“Authorities believed List may have fled the country. They said he had at least $2,000 with him. They said he cashed bonds in that amount at the Suburban Trust Co. on Nov. 9.”

the list murders

Image from the Sunday News, December 12, 1971
The caption reads: “The Rev. Eugene Rehwinkel leads services at draped coffins of the family of John List in Westfield, N.J., cemetery. Mrs. Eve Morris, who is Mrs. List’s mother (right) is comforted. Rehwinkel called upon List to give himself up.”

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The Funeral

The Sunday News reported following the funeral of the List family members, describing what happened:

“Preceded by the pastor and a cross bearer, the five coffins were carried from the church and placed in hearses for the procession to the cemetery. The casket bearing the body of List’s mother was returned to the funeral home to await transferral to Michigan.”

With the case going cold after List’s car was found at the airport, the police were taking as many measures as possible to potentially catch the killer:

“Teams of plainclothes police cruised around the church and cemetery, two miles apart, in the hope, however remote, that List might return.”

Police officer Chief James Moran even claimed that: 

“We are finding more and more that this murder was well planned,” 

This was because, as the newspaper states, “Authorities said that List wanted police to find the letter to Rehwinkel, plus three others to relatives, without much trouble.” He left a key to the filing cabinet, containing the letters and two pistols.

the list murders

Images from the Sunday News, December 12, 1971
The caption for the images reads: “Teenage friends of List children cry after service (left) and pallbearer (right) crises as he carries casket from Redeemer Lutheran Church

1989: Eighteen Years On

For the eighteen years that followed, John List lived an undetected life under an alias, Robert P. Clark. He had moved to Virginia, re-married and found himself another job as an accountant. On June 1, 1989, his case appeared on a national TV show, presenting his case in the public eye. This episode would lead to his arrest. The New York Times reports the following day:

“An 18-year search for one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives – a New Jersey man who vanished when his mother, wife and three children were found shot to death in 1971 – ended in Virginia yesterday after his case was featured on a national television program.”

Similarly with the case of serial killer Ted Bundy, the press mentioned the admirable nature of List’s lifestyle, making awareness of the fact he was “a college-educated, churchgoing accountant” and a seemingly respectable man. 

the list murders

Headline from The New York Times, June 2, 1989

America’s Most Wanted

The legal reality show America’s Most Wanted first aired in 1988, with the purpose of bringing some of America’s biggest fugitives to people’s television screens across the country. The show would share their case, then ask the public to ring in if they had any potential leads and ask the public to keep their eyes peeled in their communities. In 1989, the show aired John List’s case. 

Frank Bender, an artist and sculptor, created a bust of List, showing what he believed he would look like after 18 years. The bust was featured on the show, and, almost immediately, tips came flooding in. One of these tips came from a lady, who called in to say the bust looked very similar to one of her neighbours, Robert P. Clark. She explained that he was also a regular churchgoer and worked as an accountant. Since List was living a very similar life to his life in New Jersey, this made him easy to track down. Police followed this lead, spoke to his oblivious new wife, and eventually arrested List at his accountant office. 

Robert D. McFadden, a reporter for The New York Times, reported on the case as it re-emerged in the public eye: 

“An 18-year search for one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives – a New Jersey man who vanished when his mother, wife and three children were found shot to death in 1971 – ended in Virginia yesterday after his case was featured on a national television program.”

McFadden reveals that List had: 

“…changed his name but kept his profession, married a woman who knew nothing of his past, lived in Colorado and Virginia and avoided any trouble that might have exposed his fingerprints.”

Thanks to the Fox television show, Robert P. Clark’s neighbour and Frank Bender’s sculpture, the police finally managed to track the mass murderer down:

“But, they said, the last crucial links to the suspect were forged by a sculptor’s bust of what the fugitive would look like after almost two decades, a telltale scar behind his ear and a tip by a viewer of a May 21 segment on the “America’s Most Wanted” program on the Fox television network.”

The newspaper states that List was finally caught by his fingerprints, despite denying his real identity, and the fact that his new life was so similar to his old helped the tips come in. Psychologists even claimed that List would most likely be wearing the same style of glasses as a reminder of his earlier, more successful years. Following his arrest, McFadden states that the incident “…stunned the suspect’s wife” and “…delighted former neighbors.”

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1990: Trial and Sentencing

John List’s trial took place in 1990, during which he showed no guilt, remorse or regret for the murder of his family. The lawyers who defended List claimed he had been struggling with PTSD after he had fought in World War II and the Korean War. Psychologists also revealed that List committing the mass murder was an extreme reaction to a mid-life crisis, which prosecutors reinforced was not an excuse for five people to lose their lives. 

Returning to the state of the crime, John List was given five life sentences for the murder of his family, and lived out the rest of his life in a New Jersey prison. In 2002, List was interviewed about his motives for the murder and emphasised the belief that he wished his family would make a peaceful and quick journey into heaven. He was fearful that his children were losing touch with God and by killing them, he could eventually reunite with them in heaven. 

2008: The Death of John List and Aftermath

the list murders

Headline in The New York Times, March 25, 2008

In 2008, John List once again appeared in the press after he passed away in prison from pneumonia. Owen Moritz reported on his death in an issue of the New York Daily News:

“Mass murderer John List, the Mr. Peepers look-alike who methodically slaughtered his New Jersey family and then went on the lam for 18 years, has died in prison.”

Moritz reinforces the notion of List as an ordinary, respectable man when he writes: 

“List was a prim Sunday school teacher who even mowed his lawn in a suit and tie.”

“…List, who held a master’s degree…”

The report relays the details of the murders, as well as the fact that List went on the run for 18 years and lived by a different name. With the case ongoing and unsolved, he writes how the murderer was caught: 

“In the late 1980s, frustrated law enforcement officials turned to “America’s Most Wanted” because of the TV show’s track record in capturing fugitives.”

Moritz also writes about List’s view of his crimes throughout his time in prison:

“Right up until his death, List never expressed remorse for his crimes.”

In the aftermath of the John List murders, the family’s 19-room Victorian mansion was burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was never uncovered. Years later, a new home was built on the land, but many people, especially children, never wish to live on that street or walk past where the property used to stand. 

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