Extra! Refrigerator Deaths!

When I was a child, I was always warned against playing or hiding in refrigerators. This always seemed ridiculous to me; fridges were cold, and everyone knew the light went off when you closed the door, so why would you want to sit in the freezing dark?

That said, I do remember that many homes had, and still have, huge chest freezers. They didn’t stand upright, but instead rested lengthways – rather like a coffin, in fact – and some of these had latching handles that clicked shut.

They were the perfect size for hiding, but even then I wasn’t convinced that the stories of children being found frozen to death after a playtime game went horribly wrong could possibly be true.

But then I started researching the LA Times archives for my two Gourmet Ghosts books, and I came across a number of upsetting reports about just that: children who had hidden in fridges (or the even more basic ice boxes, as they used to be called) and found themselves unable to get out. They had died of the cold, or starvation, or even suffocation. Or a combination of all three.

It happened often, and not just in houses: children were found dead in broken fridges left on wasteland or at garbage dumps too. It was surely a terrifying, slow and lonely way to die, so imagine my surprise when I found out that some adults actually chose to climb into a fridge to commit suicide.

On February 4, 1955, Joseph M. Parker from Long Beach registered at the Hotel Wellington in downtown San Francisco. Sometime during the night he made his way to the kitchen, unplugged the refrigerator, attached a piece of string to the inside of the door, and then used it to close the door behind him. He left two suicide notes.

On June 13 that same year, 68-year-old Edith Boyd used a similar method to climb into the fridge in the garage of her cousin Berthina Clementson. Berthina and her husband had gone out to a housewarming, but Boyd, who seemed in good spirits, had declined to join them. She was reported missing the next day, but then her body was found: she had suffocated to death.

On May 10, 1968, the LA Times reported on the suicide of 17-year-old William B. Moore, an outstanding San Bernardino student who was described as a “Boy Genius.” The fridge was in a shed behind the house, and after removing the shelves, Moore climbed in. He was carrying a flashlight, his diary, and some sleeping pills.

Moore wrote that he had “sealed the inside with masking tape,” and that the pills had an “awful taste,” as she slowly faded away. “Goodby”, “thanks”, and “love” were a few of the other legible words, and it emerged that he had posted letters to four friends telling them of his plan to take his own life. But his friends, parents, teachers and police were mystified about the reason why.   

On July 9 that same year in Arcadia, 55-year-old Juanita Lanferman was found dead at her home, “jammed” into a three-foot-tall refrigerator. There were no indications of a struggle, but police were waiting for a detailed autopsy to confirm if she had died of suffocation…

Makes you look rather differently at the huge refrigerators we have today – there’s certainly plenty of space in them, isn’t there? No wonder they’re also used by killers. And it certainly makes a bit more sense now when you get told “Stay away from that fridge!”