How did boring eyewear condemn a man to 5 consecutive life sentences?

The List family shortly before John killed all but himself.

The List family shortly before John killed all but himself.

From the April 7th 1990 Philadelphia Inquirer:

It was a marriage from hell.

John List wasn’t the only one in the family who was mentally ill. So was his wife, Helen, according to a doctor and psychiatrist who testified for the defense yesterday at List’s murder trial at the Union County courthouse.

He had an obsessive compulsive personality, was rigid in his moral values, preoccupied with order and barren of any visible emotion. She was a latent schizophrenic, often paranoid and incoherent, and physically wracked by Scotch, tranquilizers and syphilis, according to testimony.

Both kept secrets.

Helen List never revealed the true nature of her disease to her husband or doctors until two years before her death in 1971, according to testimony. For more than 20 years, she hid her syphilis from everyone, like the little green triangular pills she always kept stashed in her bedroom.

John List cloaked his emotions behind a mask of placid control. He never told anyone he was going broke. Long after he was fired from his job, he continued to don a shirt and tie and leave each morning for “the office.” A bench at the Westfield train station was as far as he got.

But List was “like a rubber band,” said Sheldon I. Miller, a defense psychiatrist. “It gets stretched and stretched and then it snaps.”

When List finally vented a lifetime of repressed emotion, it was more than a mere snap. “Eventually he simply exploded,” Dr. Miller said, altering his analogy. On Nov. 9, 1971, he said, List killed his 45-year-old wife; his mother, Alma, 85; his daughter, Patricia, 16, and two sons, John Jr., 15, and Frederick, 13.

Yet, List was so compulsive, according to earlier testimony, that he remained at the house to clean up the mess from the slayings and put his finances in order before he fled to Denver to start a new life as Robert P. Clark. List “ate lunch after killing his wife and Alma, dinner after killing the three children and breakfast the next morning,” Assistant Prosecutor Eleanor Clark said yesterday during a hearing on the admissibility of the medical testimony.

After more than an hour of acrimonious argument on the issue, Superior Court Judge William L’E. Wertheimer allowed List’s attorney, Elijah J. Miller Jr., to tell the jury about Helen List’s syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband in the mid-1940s. The judge’s decision was crucial for the defense. Miller is trying to show that List, with his rigid religious and moral values, cracked under the emotional strain of learning the truth about his wife’s condition.

“When one remembers List’s strict ethical code,” Dr. Miller, the defense psychiatrist, said, “it had to be difficult for him to live with her” after he learned of her condition.

Helen List’s health was already starting to deteriorate as a result of syphilis when she and List were married in 1951, according to testimony. She was blind in her right eye. One child survived for only six months and she suffered several miscarriages during her first marriage.

The defense implied that Helen feared List wouldn’t marry her if he knew her condition. Not only did Helen suggest that they go to Maryland for the wedding, where no blood test was required for a marriage license, she also told List she was pregnant, her sister, Jean Syfert, testified this week. She did not have a baby, Syfert said.

Emory R. Liss, a neurological surgeon who reviewed Helen List’s medical records for the defense, said that she was treated for syphilis in the mid- 1940s. At that time, penicillin was still an experimental drug and was in short supply because of the war. Helen List received the common treatment of the time: She was injected with the malaria virus, which doctors believed would kill the syphilis.

That treatment apparently failed. By the early ’60s, she could hardly walk, Liss said. She fell repeatedly, damaging her brittle bones, and was in and out of hospitals. Doctors never suspected syphilis, Liss said. Nor did they detect her dependency on tranquilizers and barbiturates, he said.

Instead, doctors diagnosed her as a latent schizophrenic, Liss said. Her behavior was erratic. Sometimes she rambled incoherently, he said.

Dr. Miller testified List told him that at times his wife cruelly flirted with other men to humiliate him. List said he finally learned that his wife was dying of syphilis after a 1969 hospitalization, Dr. Miller said.

Dr. Miller said he believed that List was unable to cope with his wife’s illness. Although List was extremely intelligent – his IQ was 140 – Dr. Miller said he was a perfectionist who was unable to complete any task. Because of his preoccupation with order, he lost himself in the process and forgot his original mission.

List’s obsessive-compulsive personality was rooted in his childhood, Dr. Miller said. His mother was already past 40 and his father was 60 when he was born. Always fearing that he would hurt himself, they forbade him to play with other children and spent hours instructing him in religion. He learned to control and hide his emotions, Dr. Miller said.

But more significantly, List’s father also taught his son that the ability to support a family was the measure of a man, Dr. Miller said.

List killed his family when he was nearly bankrupt.

“He was trapped into believing, that as wrong as it was to murder your family, it was more wrong not to take care of them,” Dr. Miller said. “He believed he was saving them from the humiliation and embarrassment of being on the public dole.”

According to Dr. Miller, List told him he was “on automatic pilot in 1971.”

“Most of us would have seen many options. He saw only two,” Dr. Miller said. “To go on welfare or to kill his family.”
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Some of you might be wondering what this story is doing in a blog about eyewear.

Simply this: John List was on the run from the law for 18 years. Under an assumed name he’d rebuilt his life doing the same work, attending the same denominational church, and had remarried. Most believed he’d never be found.

Then on May 21st 1989 America’s Most Wanted featured the case. They hired forensic sculptor Frank Bender to do an age-progressed bust of what List would look like at that time. Having studied List’s psychological profile, Bender assumed he’d be wearing boring eyewear.

Bender nailed it!

John List's real head superimposed over the Frank Bender sculpture at left; at right Sculptor Frank Bender discusses the case on America's Most Wanted.

John List’s real head superimposed over the Frank Bender sculpture at left; at right Sculptor Frank Bender discusses the case on America’s Most Wanted.

John List: Busted

John List: Busted

List was apprehended within 11 days and ultimately sentenced to 5 consecutive terms of life imprisonment. He died in 2008.

If List had chosen more interesting eyewear he might never have been recaptured.

Food for thought.

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