“The Cipher in Room 214” (Part II)

False leads

Investigators did work at it, putting in countless hours and chasing dozens of leads.

“It’s the only case I never solved in my 10 years,” said Arleigh Marquis, the medical examiner’s primary investigator on the case. Marquis has identified people from leads as slim as a copied key. Like Webster and Matthews, he still thinks about Mary Anderson.

Anderson refused to yield to their probing.

“We examined her hands to see whether they suggested an occupation,” Webster said. Sometimes forensic investigators can judge, by the softness of the skin, or a pattern of calluses, what work a subject might have done. Nothing.

Her use of cyanide, however, likely meant that she had some education.

For a time, investigators thought she might have worked for a mining company or a chemistry lab — either medical, or university — where she would have had access to the poison. But a search produced nothing.

Her skill at hiding her identity may have been its own clue. Could she have worked for an intelligence operation? Was she a spy?

“That’s entirely possible,” said Marquis, now the medical examiner for Snohomish County. Her appearance was vaguely Eastern European, although her command of the written English language indicated that she was a native speaker, he said.

He also wouldn’t rule out that she had family, despite her note.

“When people tell me that, I automatically don’t believe it,” he said. “It’s more a request not to look.”

Marquis believes that she was likely familiar with Seattle and had been to the hotel before, perhaps had a significant memory associated with it. The ZIP code she wrote in the hotel registry was for Astoria, N.Y., but checks there didn’t reveal any information.

There were other false leads.

She had a copper IUD implanted in her uterus, the implied intimacy of it suggestive of a relationship. But the part number was worn away, so investigators couldn’t trace its origin. And no lover came to claim her.

Scars beneath both breasts indicated some form of cosmetic breast surgery — indicating that she had the means, and desire, to care for her appearance. That, too, led nowhere. Dental records didn’t help either.

They tried to trace her clothing and makeup to their point of purchase, but all were from department stores located in multiple states. The lot her Metamucil came from was shipped initially to Phoenix, but could have gone anywhere after that.

Her family Bible had no family listed.

When all the leads had been exhausted, this is all they knew of Anderson:

She was about 5 foot 7 and approximately 240 pounds. She had short, brownish hair and brown eyes. She was likely between age 33 and 45. She had never borne children. She owned two pairs of eyeglasses and shopped at midrange department stores. The brand names she wore, The Villager (by Liz Claiborne) and Alfred Dunner, were available at what was then The Bon March?, or at J.C. Penney. In Canada, she could have bought those brands at Sears or Hudson’s. She preferred bright lipstick: Starlit Pink or Rich and Rosy. She wore Est?e Lauder Private Collection perfume.

But even “facts” can be subjective.

Light eyes turn darker after death, Matthews of the Doe Network said. And it’s sometimes hard even in life to differentiate eye color. Hair can be color-treated. Age estimates are subjective at best.

Identifying details get reported differently by different people, and such creeping inconsistencies are the bane of searchers.

Some things are provable: An autopsy confirmed she was in good health.

But the psyche doesn’t yield to the scalpel; there are no forensic tests for a broken spirit.

‘Black cloud’

If Anderson chose an invisible death, it may well have been the result of an invisible killer.

Depression — undiagnosed depression in particular — is an insidious threat. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is among the top 10 causes of death in the United States, outstripping homicide.

“It’s a lethal condition that is underdiagnosed and undertreated,” said Dr. David Dunner, professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Anxiety and Depression. Only about half of those who have it seek help, and only about half of those who seek help are diagnosed properly and treated. Of those who are diagnosed, only half are treated adequately, he said.

“Unfortunately, suicide is an outcome with a fairly high percentage, although the exact figure is unknown,” he said.

Experts estimate the mortality rate for severe depression to be about 15 percent. The risk of suicide is about 20 times greater for people with depression than for the general population.

And although men have triple the rate of suicide, women attempt it three times more often than men, psychologists say.

Women are more vulnerable to depression, in part because of hormonal interplay with mood disorders, Dunner said. Rates of depression are twice as common in women than in men.

People who are depressed may go in and out of feeling suicidal. It is very difficult to predict.

A feeling of hopelessness, however, is one commonality among those who contemplate suicide, Dunner said. Survivors of suicide attempts talk about it as though they were taken over by a “black cloud.”

The invisible age

No one knows what Mary Anderson’s state of mind was, but her deliberate invisibility could itself be a clue.

At a certain age, women can begin to feel unnoticed, said Halling, the psychology professor at Seattle University.

Women who are seeing their looks begin to change, and who have not yet achieved the revered status of elder or grandmother, may begin to feel lost in a society that focuses on shallow views of women’s worth.

Perhaps it’s revealing, then, that she picked Mary Anderson as her alias. Mary Anderson was the name of the woman who invented the windshield wiper in 1905.

Was it deliberate irony to choose as a namesake the inventor of a ubiquitous device we look past daily with little notice? Or merely happenstance?

For both sexes, middle age is a time of dealing with accrued life issues, the “baggage” of messy lives, said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

The changes such unresolved life issues cause in people may be subtle enough that those around them don’t see them spiraling into depression.

“People forget just exactly what the person used to be like, so nobody is figuring out how to respond,” Schwartz said. “Pretty soon it’s a real big problem.”

Looking at the Anderson case from the outside, Schwartz said, her method suggests that she really wanted to die. “That’s an important part of that description. … I think it’s important to know she was beyond caring.”

Isolation can lead to that level of despair, she added.

“We’re very much a herd animal, and a coupling animal,” she said. “We need to have people in close intimate relationship. We get strange when we don’t. If we stay isolated, we feel unimportant, irrelevant and start to get self-destructive.”

Anonymous presence

Wind rakes the branches of the trees that shelter the headstones spread across Crown Hill Cemetery. Tucked into a modest residential area on the edge of Ballard, the graveyard is one of the few remaining family-owned cemeteries in Seattle.

In a green-shingled trailer that doubles as a cemetery office, caretaker Phillip Howell pulls a yellowing card from an old steel file cabinet.

“Here she is,” he says. The card reads: Doe, Jane, Grave No. 197-A.

Howell heads across the brown grass to the far corner of the cemetery.

“Quite often this is a happy place,” he says, sounding wishful. “It’s a place where people come to be together and remember.

“But this back here is kind of a sad area. There’s one person who was murdered a couple of spaces away.”

A few feet from the back fence, just over from a high bank of dirt from already-dug graves, he stops and feels for the slight indentation that tells him he has arrived.

“This is it,” he says. Anderson shares the space with another, a man buried as indigent. The county spent $479 on her burial. There was no service. There is no marker on her grave.

But there are people who remember. Quarles, who found her at the hotel, does.

“I’ve thought about her a lot over the years,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that easy to just disappear.”

Webster still wishes he knew her real name, if only to lay the matter to rest for whatever family she had.

Matthews, too, wants to give her a name. “Everyone deserves that,” he said.

And Halling, of Seattle University, offered this. “If you wanted to, you could disappear. She made herself anonymous, but still a presence.”

In that sense, she got what she perhaps didn’t get in life: notice.

The sun is setting, and the caretaker winds his way through the cemetery back to his office. Dotted around the graveyard are monuments to memories of others — a perpetual garden with a bench and wintering pansies at the grave of a teenager, a mausoleum housing a man buried seated in his wheelchair — each as idiosyncratic as the person it memorializes.

Behind him, a blanket of fallen maple leaves carpets Mary’s grave.

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