The House of Horrors: Mechanics Grove Lancaster County

In 1935 a formidable figure of crime and mystery stood in the shadow of five ugly charges: abortion, abortion resulting in a death, abortion resulting in the death of a child, and two violations of the narcotics laws. Dr. Harry C. Zimmerly was a practicing physician in Mechanics Grove, a village just below Quarryville. The rundown farmhouse-hospital named the “House of Horrors” drew thousands who came from most everywhere, nosing about in the hopes that they might find some trace of the remains of the girls and women that went missing. Moral derelicts of a Sadist, whose Sadistic tendencies were goaded on by hope, freely taken and freely given.

Dr. H. C. Zimmerly

Zimmerly, at age sixty-seven, was loose-jowled with a bulbous nose seated squarely between his dark eyes and brows. He often hid his unkempt gray hair under a fedora. The physician was calm and quiet as his court hearing began, and then started to fidget and squirm when the first witness took the stand. His eyes under puffy lids were dull but watchful, as he fiddled with his shabby brown felt hat in his lap, occasionally using it as a shield to whisper to his attorney. He squirmed, his lower lip pouting a little as the detective told of his finding in the doctor’s house at Mechanics Grove. Dr. Zimmerly grew uneasy as he listened to three witnesses tell what they knew of the death and disappearance of twenty-six-year-old Mrs. Gladys Lawson.

Mechanics Grove sits in Lancaster County, about ten miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It is today much as it was in the 1930s: an earthen quilt of green and brown farmland. Shortly after taking possession of the farm, Dr. Zimmerly built a “spite fence” tall enough to block the view from the second-story windows of nearby homes. The “Farm-hospital” consisted of three rooms on the first floor, all concrete with a furnace pit, an office in which the doctor also slept, a stairway leading to the second floor, a bedroom on the left, a bedroom on the second-floor front, a bathroom and a door leading into the second floor of the garage, which was divided into a number of rooms that were not completed.

“Spite fence” erected around Dr. Zimmerly’s property to keep out inquisitive neighbors.

The rumors began almost immediately after Zimmerly moved in. Neighbors swore they heard screams and groans in the middle of the night. Others saw strange lights at odd, early morning hours. Dr. Zimmerly may have continued his suspiciously, strange private life indefinitely had it not been for Mrs. Gladys Lawson. When she went missing in March 1935, her family vowed to find her.

Mrs. Gladys Lawson

The mother of two was pregnant again. For reasons never revealed, Lawson simply could not contemplate a third child. So, she paid Zimmerly $4 for an illegal abortion. As they still are today, so-called “back-alley” abortions were, in the ’30s, a significant cause of maternal mortality. Clinics – a repugnant euphemism for any space where a cot and lighting could be erected – were unsanitary. The medical practitioners were usually substandard and greedy. Dr. Zimmerly was a poster-boy for such medical malpractice. His instruments were literally covered with rust, and his “hospital” beds were blood-soaked. Not getting an infection after one of Zimmerly’s procedures was a miracle.

Mrs. Lawson pictured with her brother, Grover. In the background her two children, Rondall, 8 and Ruby, 7.

Dr. Zimmerly operated on the girl a number of times. Beatrice Trimble stated she was present for at least one operation that was performed. Several days before the death of Gladys Lawson, Blanche Stone, the doctor’s housekeeper, was present when the baby was born. On Friday March 15th, Gladys Lawson called Blanche Stone up to her room, she didn’t want to be alone. At that time, she was breathing with difficulty, moaning and spitting blood. Blanche admitted that she could not stay and left the room. When Dr. Zimmerly arrived, he went up to see Gladys Lawson and made intermittent visits. At supper time, Blanche Stone went up to see Gladys Lawson and left on account of the same reason as the first time. The moaning and cries of pain were audible on the first floor. There they sat that night. Gladys Lawson moaning and dying, Blanche Stone directly under her bedroom on the first floor, and Dr. Zimmerly and a man who stayed there by name of Richard “Dick” Parker. None of them could sleep because of the moaning. Blanche never saw the woman again.

Zimmerly’s housekeeper, Blanche Stone.

Periodically, Dr. Zimmerly would go up to the see the woman. Between 12 and 12:30am on March 16th, the moaning ceased. Dr. Zimmerly went downstairs and told Blanche Stone that she passed out or words to that effect. There was no more moaning. At 4am, Blanche Stone managed to fall asleep, but she was awakened at 7 or 7:30am. Dr. Zimmerly reported that he was leaving for Maryland. He then drove to Arthur Smith’s home and told him of Mrs. Lawson’s death and his plan to cut up the body.

Zimmerly asked Smith how many people knew Mrs. Lawson was at his place. Informed by Smith that only he and Beatrice Trimble knew of it, Zimmerly then told him she died the night before, and “I’ve got a body on my hands, and I’ve got to get rid of it.” He then told Smith his plan to go back to Mechanics Grove and cut up the body and burn it.

It was believed that some days later the body was taken from the bedroom where she died, across the hallway, through the bathroom and into a room in the corner of the garage. Disheveled and shifty Richard Parker, pal of Dr. Zimmerly, admitted that he sharpened the butcher knives that went missing from Blanche Stone’s kitchen, in which the county doctor used to dismember the body of Mrs. Lawson. After sharpening the knives, Parker said, Dr. Zimmerly went to the room on the second floor of the house and through the windows he was able to see the doctor dismembering the body of the girl in the room adjoining the garage. He declared that Mrs. Lawson was dead and that he had smelled the odor of flesh – human flesh in the house. He said he believed he knew where the body could be found.

Dr. Zimmerly cut off the fleshy parts and then took the bones and what was left on them to the furnace and there burned it with wood, oil and paper. He took the fleshy part of the body and the entrails and put them in a lard can and then moved the lard can to the second floor of the garage where it would later be found.

On April 3rd constables appeared at Zimmerly’s residence with a search warrant. They found the doctor lying down in the living room on the first floor as he was under the effects of dope and also found that he had a bottle of cocaine in his pocket. The doctor threatened them and told them to get out of his house. One of the first things the constables found in their search was a .38 caliber revolver beneath the pillow the doctor had been using. When asked about Mrs. Lawson, Zimmerly claimed that he took the girl to Lancaster on March 16th and left her out at Penn Square. Before the constables arrived, the doctor made sure to inform his housekeeper, Blanche Stone that if anybody asked what happened to Gladys Lawson, she was to say he took her to Lancaster on March 16th.

Dr. Zimmerly’s desk.

In the kitchen on and near the washing machine, fifteen instruments were found lying on two bloody towels in a basin. They appeared to be those used in maternity cases. There was also a quantity of bloody cotton in the kitchen. When the constables went upstairs, they discovered seventeen-year-old Elsie Miller, another patient, barely alive, lying in the same bed in which Mrs. Lawson had died a few days earlier. Miss Miller was removed from the House of Horrors on April 3rd and recovered in the General Hospital.

Two butcher knives also found in the kitchen were believed to be used in dismembering Mrs. Lawson’s body. Other knives and a surgical saw were found in the house along with a force feed spray oil can. Also found were blood-stained floors, a container of chloroform, and blood spots on an adjustable chair, which was thought to be the doctor’s operating table. The doctor refused to answer when asked about the instruments found in the kitchen.

The adjustable chair, thought to be the doctor’s operating table.

Upstairs, strands of blond hair, which fit Mrs. Lawson’s description, were found wrapped around wires in a bed frame. Clothing that Gladys Lawson wore when she arrived at Zimmerly’s was found in a closet under the stairway in the room where she had died. A green coat, brown galoshes, brown suede shoes and brown gloves; it appeared that she arrived without any change of clothing. Decomposed flesh and fragments of human skin infested with bacteria was discovered when they found and opened the lard can. The portions of hardened material found on the floor of the room where the body was dissected were analyzed and found to be clots of human blood. The whole scene looked very much like a slaughterhouse.

Upon further investigation the constables discovered the driveway leading into the garage was paved with ash. It was then determined bits of human bones were spread throughout the ashes. After analysis the fragments were proved to be portions of a human skeleton, a human female skeleton.

The sloppy manner in which Zimmerly worked and the unsanitary conditions that existed were proof enough to justify an intensive search and investigation into a number of women that may have been buried somewhere about the Zimmerly home or in the vicinity of Mechanics Grove. As investigators expanded their search into the woods surrounding Zimmerly’s farmhouse, they found bone fragments of what they believed to be several additional women. In the pre-DNA era, however, these suspicions were never proven.

The fates seem to decree that the State Police would not have searched in vain until the remains of at least four hapless women had been found, maybe more. Even as the night faded toward the dawn, it seemed almost certain that only by establishing a port for missing women and following their trail from whence they sailed, would the State Police or other sleuths ever fathom how many women and girls went the way of Mrs. Lawson because of quicklime. Every now and then, big, black clouds of smoke accompanied by a peculiar odor, poured from the chimney, told a mute story in conjunction with the confession of a pal of the jailed doctor that he carved to pieces the body of Mrs. Lawson who died a dreadful death in the House of Horrors, and a bedraggled Chamber of Death.

The House of Horrors not only held the secrets of women, alive and dead, but there seemed to be evidence that the police would be able to find the hidden hand of the underworld kings, reaching into the dope drop of the place called home by the county doctor, a so-called home in the quiet of the countryside of staid old Lancaster County.

State police detectives ultimately learned the real reason Zimmerly had left Pittsburgh and moved to Lancaster. In 1919, the same year he moved to Lancaster County, the doctor was convicted in Allegheny County court for performing “illegal operations.” For Zimmerly, the move to southeastern Pennsylvania was a new start for his old and bloody business.

On June 14, 1935, Zimmerly was found guilty of not murder, but rather performing an illegal operation that cost a woman’s life. He was sentenced to seven and one-half to fifteen years in the Eastern State Penitentiary. After serving five years the doctor claimed ill and applied for early release, stating that he could support himself by building apartments on his farm, in his words, “for the good of the poor.” His release was refused. The District Attorney stated that the doctor no longer owned the property. The 7-room frame House of Horrors brought $2,500 at the Sheriff’s sale a year after the doctor was sent to prison. The farm-hospital was purchased by Zimmerly’s father-in-law. As fate would have it, death wrote the final chapter – the doctor died of a cerebral hemorrhage just three months shy of his minimum sentence to serve. He was buried in a Philadelphia Cemetery. At the end the doctor only muttered three words, “House, house, house…”

The House of Horrors as it looks today.
Back view of the House of Horrors.

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Perpetual Adventure

A Writer/Screenwriter fueled by proponent travel. When she decided to leave the only home she knew the journey grew into a fierce dream to travel and write about the places she explores. Her adventures are a constant struggle between fear and courage, but we humans are explorers and pioneers, and we find our inner strength when the end state is the absolute unknown.