Twin Peaks: How the brutal murder of Hazel Drew inspired the cult classic

The TV drama that first showed in the early nineties returns with a third series but its origins lie in a girl's death in upstate New York more than a century ago

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The Independent Online

The resort community of Sand Lake in upstate New York roasted in 90-degree heat for the third straight day on 7 July 1908, when 20-year-old Hazel Irene Drew walked along a remote section of Taborton Road. Heavily wooded, this stretch out by Teal's Pond was popular with squirrel hunters, campers and fishermen looking for bait, but it was risky business for a young woman like Hazel to be alone at night. 

She was, by all accounts, a prepossessing woman, with flaxen, pompadoured hair and blue eyes. At approximately 7.30pm she encountered two men: Frank Smith, a reportedly "dimwitted" teenage farmhand who had met her on a handful of occasions and was said to fancy her, and Rudolph Gundrum, 35, a charcoal peddler who had been driving his horse-drawn wagon into town when Frank hailed him for a ride. In her gloved hand, Hazel idly swung her black-trimmed straw hat, decorated with three large plumes and a monogrammed pin with the letter H. Hazel and Frank exchanged salutations. As the wagon moved on, Smith turned to Gundrum and said: "That's old man Drew's oldest daughter."

This was the last confirmed sighting of Hazel Drew before her lifeless and bloated body was discovered floating face down in Teal's Pond four days later. Cause of death: a blow to the back of the head, her skull crushed with a blunt, unknown weapon. The water had distorted Hazel's features so beyond recognition that she could be identified only by her clothes and the gold fillings in her teeth. The evidence pointed overwhelmingly to murder.

Today, the mystery of who killed Hazel and why remains unsolved. And while the case attracted daily coast-to-coast press coverage for weeks at the time, including extensive coverage in The Washington Post, Hazel and her story would likely be long forgotten today if not for one thing: the murder happened in the vicinity of Taborton, New York, where Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost spent his summer vacations as a youth.

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The 1908 murder of Hazel Irene Drew in Sand Lake, New York, inspired the ABC series Twin Peaks (Courtesy of Bob Moore, Sand Lake)

Frost's maternal grandmother, Betty Calhoun, would spin yarns derived from local folklore, including Hazel's murder, framing it "along the lines of a cautionary ghost story: don't go out in the woods at night," as Frost remembered it in a recent interview.  Frost inherited his grandmother's flair for storytelling, becoming an accomplished novelist, screenwriter and television auteur, who created, along with David Lynch, the nineties ABC show that returns with brand-new episodes on 21 May, 26 years after its cancellation. Little could Frost's grandmother have imagined that her embellished ghost stories would help launch one of the biggest phenomena in TV history.

Frost and Lynch were batting around story ideas in a Los Angeles coffee shop when they conjured up the image of a young woman's lifeless body washing up on the lonely shore of a small-town lake. Lynch, as one might discern from his filmography, was obsessed with young, troubled, vulnerable women, especially blondes. (Earlier, he and Frost had worked on a fictionalised Marilyn Monroe biopic suggesting that the Kennedys were involved in her death.)

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A clipping from The Washington Post regarding Hazel Drew's murder (The Washington Post )

As for Frost: "I'd heard stories about Hazel all through my growing up, because she's supposedly haunted this area of the lake," he said at a 2013 Twin Peaks reunion at the University of Southern California. "So that's kind of where Laura came from."

That would be Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee), whose murder is the core of the original series and, according to Lynch, will again be a central theme when the show returns. 

During the show's development, Frost started poking around the Sand Lake city hall for details of the murder. "It was the notion of this girl's body being found on the edge of the water, the mystery remaining unsolved, the multiple suspects, and the kind of cross-cultural and different social classes of people she interacted with," he says. "It really struck my fancy."

Laura, a 17-year-old homecoming queen, and Hazel, who had worked as a domestic servant from the age of 14, were both small-town beauties whose murders exposed a wealth of personal secrets. On the surface, Laura led a tranquil, exemplary life: straight-A student, faithful girlfriend to the quarterback of the high school football team, meals on wheels volunteer, and so on. But as the investigation progressed, secret lovers and sordid relationships emerged, enthralling FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and viewers alike. 

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‘Twin Peaks’ creator David Lynch (left) with Miguel Ferrer, who died in January this year after filming the new series

Similarly, Hazel's family and friends initially insisted she had no special love interest. However, as initial leads dried up, investigators unearthed numerous clues suggesting dalliances and clandestine meetings. Just as Agent Cooper gleaned crucial information from the pages of Laura Palmer's diary in Twin Peaks, Rensselaer County authorities, led by District Attorney Jarvis P O'Brien, discovered dozens of postcards and letters between Hazel and her acquaintances – identified only by their initials – locked away in Hazel's trunk. 

The Twin Peaks narrative at various times pointed the guilty finger at sensitive biker James Hurley, local drug dealer Leo Johnson and sleazy real estate developer Benjamin Horne. Investigators in Hazel's case, under mounting pressure from the public and the national press, uncovered new suspects on a seemingly daily basis. 

Frank Smith, the farmhand who crossed paths with Hazel shortly before her death, was an early target. In addition to his affections for the dead girl, he repeatedly made contradictory statements to the authorities. When corroborating alibis seemed to clear his name, a string of eccentric suspects followed, beginning with Hazel's surly and melancholy uncle, William Taylor, whose farm was located within a mile of Teal's Pond. While followers of the case felt he was odd and suspicious, authorities could never uncover direct evidence linking him to the murder, and he was eventually cleared.

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The funeral of Laura Palmer was the beginning, not the end, of the plot

Other irascible characters would fleetingly shoot to the forefront as persons of interest – including a dentist who had proposed to Hazel, a train conductor she was rumoured to be secretly seeing and an Albany millionaire, Henry Kramroth, who ran a nearby resort where strange happenings involving orgies were said to transpire (shades of Ben Horne and his brothel-casino One Eyed Jacks from Twin Peaks). Kramroth defended himself against allegations that women were being held against their will at his resort and that neighbours had heard screams emanating from the camp near the time of the murder.

As Frost concludes: "It seemed to be kind of a hastily conducted investigation, and because she was a person from not a prominent family, I think you could fairly say, and because there was very little sympathy for female victims of that sort in this time she may have gotten the short shrift."

Exactly how much did Hazel's case directly influence Twin Peaks? Frost insists his research never got that deep into the weeds. However, he does acknowledge that his general impressions of the area played a crucial role in his conceptualisation of the setting.

"I always lived in either big cities or suburbs in my life," Frost remembers. "I'd grown up hearing about people in the mountain who were out of the ordinary, who were a little off-kilter sometimes. So I think all of those stories had an impact on my thinking about folks like this, and I definitely can remember feeling like, 'Yeah, this is a little bit like the guy who used to live out by the sawmill' or 'This is one of the hermits that I'd hear about'."

Sand Lake is, in many regards, a northeastern doppelganger to its fictional Pacific Northwest counterpart. Located down the slopes of Taborton Mountain, about 10 miles east of Albany, it has a population of 10,135 – closer to the 5,000 originally envisioned by Lynch and Frost for Twin Peaks, before ABC insisted the iconic "Welcome to Twin Peaks" sign expand the number to 51,201, somehow believing the low population would turn viewers off. And like Twin Peaks, Sand Lake's history is tied to the abundant natural resources of the region. Sand Lake historian Bob Moore notes of Twin Peaks, "The logging industry, the Great Northern Hotel, and the isolated hunting camps seem oddly related to Sand Lake in the late 1800s and early 1900s."

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Special Agent Dale Cooper (left) with The Man from Another Place, in one of the dream sequences

The town's omnipresent cloak of trees smothers the landscape, ceding barely enough space for the roads, buildings and people to go about their business. Though not the Douglas firs that Dale Cooper famously obsessed over, the variety of elm, oak, and maple trees of upstate New York certainly evokes those iconic shots of wind-tussled branches that dominated Twin Peaks. The surrounding mountains and the generally grey and drizzly climate give both the fictional town and its real-life counterpart a pervading atmosphere of dangerous intrigue. As Frost's brother, Scott, also a writer on the original series, recalls about the region: "This is the kind of place that lets a kid have a terrific sense of imagination."

Unfortunately, the parallels between Hazel Drew and Laura Palmer go only so far. While Frost and Lynch famously failed to rebuff network pressure to expose Laura's killer (no spoilers here), there were no meddling ABC executives to force a resolution to Hazel's story. Instead, weeks of investigation culminated in a grand inquest where witnesses were gathered to obtain their definitive testimonies. Unfortunately, little new information was elicited and the case ended abruptly.

"A wise man once told me that mystery is the most essential ingredient of life, for the following reason: mystery creates wonder, which leads to curiosity, which in turn provides the ground for our desire to understand who and what we truly are," Frost wrote in his 2016 novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks. The solution to Hazel's murder may lie forever beyond our grasp, but it's our longing for answers that makes her story – and the story of Laura Palmer – so seductive.

© Washington Post

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