Tailor-Made Terror: The Mystery of Koumpounophobia, the Fear of Buttons

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Paul is an IT consultant who lives in Georgia. Some years ago, he agreed to meet a woman that a friend of his thought would be perfect for him. They went on a date. She was nice, but Paul told his friend it wasn’t going to work out because she had been wearing a shirt with buttons. Lots of buttons.

Since childhood, Paul has had an aversion to buttons. When his parents took him to church and he was forced to wear a dress shirt, he insisted on covering the line of buttons with a necktie so he wouldn’t have to see them. As an adult, he leaves his work attire buttoned almost to the top, leaving just one undone so he can pull it over his head. That way, he won’t have to touch the rest of them. “The ones I hate most are the four-hole, iridescent buttons,” Paul tells Mental Floss, describing one of the most common types of plastic clothing buttons. “But they are all degrees of disgusting.”

Paul suffers from koumpounophobia, or a fear of buttons—a phobia so rare that only one clinical case has ever been documented in psychiatric literature. Unlike more common ailments like a fear of snakes or heights, those afflicted with koumpounophobia find it difficult to practice avoidance. Buttons are everywhere. On clothes. In stores. Stuffed in closets. Lurking in laundry hampers. If sufferers can somehow avoid wearing them, they’re still distressed by the sight of them on others. A hug from a button-wearer can provoke as much anxiety as the feeling of a spider crawling up an arachnophobe’s leg.

Despite his apprehensions, Paul agreed to see his date again. But before their relationship could continue, he had to sit her down and explain his affliction. “This is weird,” he told her, “but if we keep seeing each other, you need to make an effort not to wear buttons.”

 
 

Koumpounophobia had its moment in the spotlight in 2007, when The Wall Street Journal intimated that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hated buttons. The evidence, according to the paper, included Apple’s debut iPhone, a touchscreen-based device that would revolutionize telecommunications, as well as Jobs’s wardrobe, which consisted mostly of black turtlenecks. While not a disclosed phobia, the button-free preferences of Jobs (who died in 2011) has led some observers to speculate his aversion might have led to radical tech innovations that changed the course of history.

For most koumpounophobes—which may number just one in 75,000 people, a fraction of the 9 percent of Americans who suffer from specific phobias—their disgust for buttons simply changes the course of their day. They avoid looking at, touching, wearing, or thinking about buttons, an aversion that idles at the intersection between terror and repulsion, according to Wendy Silverman, Ph.D., the director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders.

Buttons are seen on a sleeve in close-up
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"There is linkage between phobia, fear, and disgust," Silverman tells Mental Floss. What people think of as fear may instead be a strong loathing. Either way, it results in avoidance behavior. In 2002, Silverman co-authored and published the only clinical paper [PDF] chronicling a case study of an adolescent presenting with a button avoidance.

At the time, Silverman was in clinical practice at Miami's Florida International University and agreed to see a mother and her 9-year-old son. The mother said that her son had struggled with his school uniform, which included a button-up shirt. He refused to touch the buttons or look at them. He didn’t like the smell of them.

“He had the feeling they were just gross,” Silverman says. “Because of the uniform, he was forced into enduring them. They caused extreme distress.”

Silverman learned of a telling incident that happened when the child was 5 years old: During a kindergarten art lesson, the boy had run out of buttons to glue to his poster board. Walking up to a giant bowl of them on the teacher’s desk, he slipped. The bowl tipped over, scattering buttons everywhere.

It’s easy to imagine the embarrassment of the boy, eyed by his classmates after sending the stockpile of buttons flying. But Silverman says that such inciting incidents are hard to come by. For most phobics, they can’t always remember that pivotal moment when an innocuous object became a threat. Memory is unreliable, and therapists don't typically find that learning the origin of a fear aids in helping to treat it. “Typically, it’s not common for kids presenting with a phobia to have experienced a direct event like this. Many times, it’s just them observing someone else or hearing about it.”

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According to Silverman, the child had a hierarchy of distaste. Small plastic buttons provoked the strongest reaction; large, jean-style brass buttons were only minimally troubling. The Jobs theory aside, electronic-style buttons—like the kind used on computer keyboards—don’t seem to be a trigger. “It’s a gradient common in phobias,” she says. “If you have a fear of dogs and see a poodle, that’s different from seeing a big dog that’s not on a leash.”

Silverman ruled out obsessive-compulsive disorder in the child’s case, as he didn’t claim any repetitive or persistent thoughts about buttons, and decided to initiate exposure therapy by slowly introducing him to physical interactions with buttons, a common approach for phobias. When he handled them, he received positive enforcement from his mother. Yet his anxiety increased: All he wanted to do was prevent anyone from assailing him with buttons. For years, that was his coping mechanism.

“Avoidance behavior, over time, just makes it worse,” Silverman says. “The mother was buying special clothes and he was allowed to avoid them.” Left untreated, koumpounophobes can come to find that buttons will begin to exact increasing influence over their lives.

 
 

In order to get Ronald, almost 4, to wear buttons, his mother Viv tries to make a game out of it, buttoning her own shirt as he buttons his. Sometimes this works; other times, he becomes so distressed that she gives up. What concerns her most is that Ronald spends his time in preschool being extremely wary of children wearing buttons.

“The way we see it happening is that he just avoids any child with buttons and has a tendency to play by himself at school,” Viv tells Mental Floss. “The teachers probably just don't see the pattern because who would think to tie whether he likes a kid or not to what the kid is wearing? They probably think of him as a bit antisocial.”

A man buttons his shirt
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To hate buttons is to avoid people wearing buttons, something that can have significant social implications for both children and adults. Paul is, in a sense, one possible future for Ronald. His phobia dictates his moods, his relationships, and his stress levels. Forced to wear buttons, he likens it to someone with anxiety over flying. “You sit on the plane but you don’t like it,” Paul says. “It’s not comfortable. You’re aware of it the whole time.”

He has little influence over how others wield buttons. If a person wearing buttons comes in for a hug, he’ll perform only the bare minimum in return. “A side hug, maybe,” he says. His wife—the same woman to whom he admitted his phobia 10 years ago—will sometimes put a button in her mouth to annoy him. People find his discomfort over fasteners funny.

“I’ve had people at work leave buttons on my desk," Paul says. "I don’t like it. A box of random buttons is gross. It’s not there for any reason.” Gratuitous shots of buttons in movies or on television annoy him. “It’s like, why are you showing this in close-up?” If he's forced to touch a button, he’ll wash his hands. “It’s like, ‘I gotta get this button off of me.’”

Contamination might be one possible explanation for why button phobics react the way they do. Paul remembers chewing on his collar as a child. Maybe, he says, a foul-tasting button made him regard all buttons as something off-putting and dirty. It’s enough to provoke unease, but not quite on the level of phobias that can cripple a person’s activities.

“Most people with a button phobia don’t meet diagnostic criteria in terms of distress and disability,” Graham Davey, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, tells Mental Floss. "So in this sense, button phobia will usually be only a mild phobia and can usually be addressed by simply cutting off all the buttons from clothing before wearing those clothes … But I have known people whose discomfort with buttons is generally down to feeling constricted by them, so it may represent a very unusual form of claustrophobia.”

 
 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which suggests modulating thought processes away from the unhelpful behavior, is one way to address an avoidance of buttons. Exposure therapy, a common technique used in CBT, subjects patients to an escalating series of encounters with the thing that causes them distress. If someone has a fear of flying, they might start with looking at a picture of an airplane before sitting in a grounded aircraft and then, ultimately, taking off. In the case of the 9-year-old boy in Miami who was brought in hating buttons, exposure wasn't enough.

"He was still having distress reactions," Silverman says. So she switched to focusing on the disgust portion of his aversion. She instructed him to imagine buttons falling on him and to consider how they felt, looked, and smelled, forcing him to analyze his own feelings and regard them as disproportionate to the objective harmlessness of the objects. His distress, measured verbally by the boy on a one-to-nine scale, began to decrease.

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At follow-up at six and 12 months, the boy reported only minimal discomfort when exposed to buttons. The clear plastic kind, once the most troubling, were worn without incident on a daily basis.

While Viv has not pursued professional help for her son, she has shown Ronald videos on button-making that didn’t seem to produce much anxiety. They also made buttons out of Play-Doh. “Maybe we’ll try again,” she says, “after we get through potty training.”

A sense of embarrassment can often stifle such attempts to cope. Paul has seen a therapist for general issues relating to looming middle age but has avoided the button topic, fearing it will sound ridiculous. Sufferers find it easier to practice avoidance, customizing tasks in an effort to reduce exposure. While cognitive therapy and exposure may work, the sufferer has to want it to work.

Paul has learned to iron shirts that are already buttoned up so he doesn’t have to touch them. More distressing than that is the fact his young daughter is beginning to exhibit signs of koumpounophobia. “She’s started to have the same aversion to buttons which has caused a bit of concern for me,” he says. “I’m trying to introduce buttons into her world so she doesn’t have to deal with the constraint.” But Paul also admits he’s most comfortable when his family’s closets are button-free, or close to it. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate buttons wholeheartedly,” he says.

How Queen Victoria Almost Learned the Ending to Charles Dickens's Unfinished 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood'

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Rischgitz/Getty Images

By 1870, Charles Dickens had reached the height of his fame. The British novelist had concluded his second reading tour of the U.S., where fans stood in line for hours just to be in the same room as the literary superstar. His last three major works—A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel; Great Expectations, a coming-of-age story; and Our Mutual Friend, a social satire—had all been critical and commercial successes. For his next project, he chose a darker genre to explore.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a whodunit set in Cloisterham, England (the fictionalized version of Dickens’s hometown of Rochester). In the tale, Edwin Drood is engaged to be married to Rosa Bud, but his fiancée has attracted romantic attention from two other men in town: his uncle John Jasper and the hot-tempered Neville Landless. Tensions boil over when the three men spend an evening together, and Landless nearly chucks a wine goblet at Drood. Days later, Drood disappears without warning, and though foul play is suspected, the culprit’s identity is unclear.

Before starting the book, Dickens wrote to his friend and biographer John Forster that he had “a very curious and new idea for my new story. Not a communicable idea (or the interest of the book would be gone), but a very strong one, though difficult to work." The writer’s vision would never be fully realized, however; Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870, at age 58 after publishing the sixth installment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood—which was meant to be serialized in 12 parts.

The author took the ending of his final novel to the grave, and to this day, the full plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood remains mysterious. There was, however, one person he came close to sharing his secret with: Queen Victoria. To the people who knew Dickens, she seemed like the last person he would confide in.

An Unlikely Meeting

Queen Victoria was one of the few people who rivaled Dickens’s fame in mid-19th century Britain. She held the throne from 1837 to 1901, making her the longest-reigning monarch in British history at the time of her death. The queen devoured literature—she also published a book of her own, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, in 1868—and like many of her subjects, she enjoyed the works of Charles Dickens. She described Oliver Twist as “excessively interesting,” and tried many times during her reign to set up a meeting with the author. But for 22 years, Dickens declined.

Dickens wasn’t as enchanted with royalty as some of his peers. To him, Queen Victoria was "merely a provincial devotee,” and he didn’t feel compelled to meet this one fan out of many, even if declining a royal invitation was a great violation of social norms at the time. Despite the insults implied with each rejection, the queen persisted—and in March 1870, she finally succeeded in getting the most famous novelist in England into her palace.

The meeting was a little awkward—they both stood the entire time—but any frank opinions the author had about his host or royalty in general he kept to himself. When Queen Victoria presented him with a copy of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, he accepted it politely, and did not mention the fact that he had once called it “preposterous” in a letter to a friend, and described those who gave it positive reviews as a “shameful lick-spittle chorus.”

Yet Dickens also didn’t exactly go out of his way to make Victoria happy. When the queen expressed regret over never making it to one of Dickens’s famous live readings, he told her didn’t do private shows (a statement that wasn’t entirely truthful). Dickens instead offered to share something with her on his terms: the ending of the novel he was currently writing, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It's possible Queen Victoria didn't realize the full significance of this gesture; Dickens hadn’t shared the full ending of the book with anyone, and as far as historians know, he hadn’t written it down anywhere—an unusual move from the normally meticulous note-taker. Whatever her reasons, the queen said 'no thank you,' and the rest of their conversation consisted of much less historically important matters, such as rising food prices and how hard it was to find good servants in England.

Dickens died less than four months later. Following their meeting, Queen Victoria had described Dickens as "very agreeable, with a pleasant voice and manner." After his death, she wrote in her diary, "He is a very great loss."

The Unsolved Mystery of Edwin Drood

Charles Dickens was known for his cliffhangers, and dying halfway through writing his last novel produced the greatest cliffhanger of his career. Whatever ending he had planned for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it likely wouldn’t have matched the 150 years' worth of mystique that has developed around the story.

Some have claimed they were in on the secret. John Forster, a friend with whom Dickens often shared his work before publishing it, wrote in his biography of the author that Drood ends with the discovery of Edwin’s lime-resistant gold ring. This apparently confirms speculations that John Jasper murdered his nephew and dissolved his remains in lime.

Other scholars and writers have attempted to solve the mystery on their own over the years. In 1914, the Dickens Fellowship held a mock trial for Jasper, with G.K. Chesterton serving as the judge and George Bernard Shaw as the foreman of the jury. (The fictional character was found guilty of manslaughter.) In 2015, the University of Buckingham set up a website called Drood Inquiry, where the public could submit their theories on the book’s conclusion. The ending that pinned Jasper as the murderer was by far the most popular, but the project also attracted some more surprising ideas. According to one submission, Edwin Drood was killed by the sweet mother of the local reverend.

All of this speculation might have never have happened if Queen Victoria had agreed to hear the ending Dickens offered to share with her. Instead, she lived out the remainder of her life just as in the dark about what the writer intended as the rest of us—even if she was lucky enough to once share in his company.

Killing Fields: The Town That Got Away With Murder

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The townspeople who had gathered near the D&G Tavern in the small farming community of Skidmore, Missouri, that July morning could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The fear that once hung over the town's 440 residents had been replaced by something else. Anger—a deep, long-simmering anger—was part of it, but so was a sense of obligation. Men stood near vehicles that held rifles and shotguns inside. Bank employees and grocery clerks watched from nearby windows. Dust hovering over the sparsely developed main road through town helped lend that moment in 1981 the tension of a Wild West showdown.

The tavern door opened, and out stepped Ken Rex McElroy, 47, a bulky man with a ragged pair of sideburns and a piercing stare. To someone passing through town, McElroy may have looked like a strong farmhand, a callused good old boy. But to locals, McElroy was a vengeful bully, a thief, and an attempted murderer who eluded any and all attempts to put him behind bars. He terrorized the rural town of Skidmore (which had no police force of its own), taking point-blank aim at those who crossed him, and was routinely charged with three to four crimes a year.

McElroy was not ignorant of the town's hostility. He simply didn't care. That morning, he was out on bond, once again free to walk Skidmore's streets. As he moved from the tavern and opened the driver's side door to his Chevy Silverado, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents who stood nearby or watched from a gas station just up the hill. His wife, Trena, climbed into the passenger’s seat.

Trena looked around, then behind them. She was the first to see the rifle as one of the gathered men hoisted it to shoulder-level. She heard the rear window of the Silverado shatter, and saw her husband slump over the steering wheel.

In seconds, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore—who had seen everything—would claim to have seen nothing at all.

 

If anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy. As one of over a dozen children raised under modest financial means in and around Kansas and the Ozarks, McElroy appeared to consider a proper education frivolous at best. According to In Broad Daylight, a comprehensive account of the Skidmore saga by author Harry N. MacLean, McElroy dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Having never learned to read or write, he set about a life of labor, eventually winding up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

It became apparent to McElroy fairly early on that an honest living would fail to provide the material possessions and leisurely lifestyle he desired. So he began stealing. Mostly, it was the livestock in and around Skidmore, a small town roughly 90 minutes north of Kansas City. In the dead of night, he'd pull up next to farmers' hog pens and make off with animals he could sell at auction or to third parties who knew better than to ask too many questions. He also leased his own land and trafficked in hunting dogs, which he had a talent for training. Through means legitimate and illicit, he was usually flush with cash—money that would come in handy when he inevitably lost his temper.

A shotgun barrel is pictured
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McElroy was rarely without a firearm of some kind, either on his person or mounted in his vehicles. Possessing a weapon was not unusual in Missouri, but brandishing it was. McElroy had no reservations about stuffing a shotgun in someone's face or belly to make a point. When a farmer named Romaine Henry had an encounter with McElroy on Henry's land in July 1976, McElroy shot him in the stomach. Henry survived and expected some measure of justice. But in court, McElroy produced witnesses who swore he was home at the time the shooting took place. A jury subsequently found McElroy not guilty.

Sliding out of trouble was a McElroy specialty. In addition to allies—often his hunting-dog cohorts—who would guarantee he was some place other than the scene of a crime, he had the money to hire Richard McFadin, a skilled defense attorney, to represent him. McFadin would use every legal maneuver at his disposal to get hearings postponed or delayed on the premise that the longer it took to go to trial, the colder the case against McElroy would get. Suddenly, defendants who had been assaulted or witnesses who had seen McElroy's impropriety would spot a pick-up truck parked outside their house or hear a shotgun going off in the middle of the night. Sometimes McElroy would confront them face-to-face and explain in a measured tone that he'd kill anyone opposing him in court.

Perhaps they could have held out for a month or two. Faced with extended periods of McElroy's harassment, many of them recanted their statements. Time and again, McElroy would simply walk away from serious charges with nothing more than a dent in his wallet.

 

As McElroy aged, his behavior grew more audacious, and the town of Skidmore grew more apprehensive. After two marriages, he wed Trena McCloud, whom he had met when she was just 14 years old. She accused him of raping her but—like many of McElroy's victims—later withdrew her statement. When McElroy was all but confirmed to have burned her parents' house down in a fit of rage, Trena blamed it on "faulty wiring." She became his accomplice, accompanying McElroy on several of his nocturnal visits to people he had targeted for harassment. As McElroy ranted, she would stand nearby, a firearm in her hands.

In 1980, Trena entered a grocery store in Skidmore with one of Ken's daughters from a previous marriage, Tonia. Before long, an argument ensued between Trena and shopkeepers Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, over whether Tonia had taken candy without intending to pay for it. For McElroy, the misunderstanding turned into an accusation that his daughter was a thief. He began to haunt the Bowenkamps at their store and at home, parking outside for hours at a time. Knowing McElroy's reputation, the couple feared it wouldn't be long before his harassment turned violent.

One evening in July 1980, McElroy approached Bo Bowenkamp near the loading area of the grocery store. After a brief verbal exchange, McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as the buckshot tore through his neck. The 70-year-old was lucky to survive.

A cornfield is seen under a full moon
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McElroy peeled off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was alerted to the incident and gave chase. Having had run-ins with McElroy before, he knew the man would attempt to get out of the county via an alternative route going through neighboring Fillmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but not before considering he might just get shot. McElroy had previously threatened that he was capable of gunning down police, and at that point there was no reason to doubt him.

 

In what was becoming a routine occurrence, McElroy enlisted McFadin to represent him in the resulting criminal case. McFadin asked for and received a change of venue—this time to Harrison County—and prepared a defense that portrayed Bowenkamp as the aggressor. The store owner, McElroy claimed, had approached him menacingly with a knife. McElroy had no choice but to defend himself.

In the interim, McElroy stuck to his usual strategy of intimidating victims, driving by the Bowenkamp household and making harassing calls. This time, his words fell on deaf ears. The Bowenkamps never lost their nerve, and McElroy was convicted of second-degree assault. He received a two-year jail sentence.

Anyone in Skidmore rejoicing at the news McElroy had finally been cornered by the law found their relief short-lived. A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond pending an appeal of the conviction.

McElroy remained a looming presence in town, and the sentence did nothing to curb his behavior. At the D&G Tavern, he brandished a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, vowing to finish the job on Bowenkamp. Such a display was a clear violation of his bond, and eyewitnesses found the courage to testify against him in the hopes he would finally be locked up. But a crafty McFadin got the hearing delayed again. On the morning of July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of wielding a firearm, he was in the tavern.

To the people of Skidmore, McElroy's continued presence was inexplicable. Time and again, the law had failed to protect them from a violent, abusive man who had stolen from them, raped them, terrorized them in their homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them. There was no predicting what kind of pain he could inflict before he was sent to jail. And that assumed he'd wind up there at all.

A windshield with a bullet hole is pictured
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A town meeting was convened at the American Legion Hall up the road from the tavern. Many of the same people who once cowered from McElroy now discussed the best way to protect their town from another rampage. Someone voiced the idea of trailing McElroy in a pack to prevent him from acting out—a kind of roving neighborhood watch. Others simply couldn't believe McElroy had once again sidestepped punishment for his actions.

The meeting dispersed, and the residents walked toward the tavern. Many walked inside and surrounded McElroy, a silent statement that there was solidarity among the townspeople.

McElroy said nothing. He exited the building and climbed into his Silverado. His wife, Trena, would later tell investigators she saw a man behind them raise a rifle before the shooting began. A shot shattered the car window and ripped through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Then one of the men opened the passenger-side door and ushered Trena out of the line of fire.

She was led into the nearby bank. The shooting continued for 20 seconds or so and then stopped. The only remaining noise was the Silverado’s rumbling engine.

A few residents walked up to the truck to peer inside. But when the ambulance arrived, it was obvious no one had tried to help.

 

From the time she was brought in for questioning, Trena was unwavering in her assertion that she knew who the killer was. She identified a man People magazine later named as Del Clement as the one who had held up the rifle and shot McElroy. Clement had motive—he was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy idled, driving away customers, and was also victimized by his livestock heists—and was known to have a quick temper.

Trena told Nodaway County's prosecuting attorney, David Baird, that it was Clement. She told FBI investigators and three separate grand juries. But she was the only one talking. Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every approach possible to gather information from residents. They tried playing nice. Then they played a heavy hand, demanding to know what had happened. They insisted no one would be getting away with murder—certainly not in broad daylight and in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI vehicles crawled through town, stopping in front of houses. Agents sat in kitchens, hoping to pry even the tiniest bit of detail from locals.

A close-up of a man's eye is pictured
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Nothing worked. Skidmore's population had little else to say other than that they heard shooting and hit the ground to avoid being struck by a bullet. They didn't see who started it, if there had been one shooter or several, or if anyone was fleeing the scene. One witness mentioned seeing Clement and a passenger speeding down a road after the shooting but later recanted.

None of it was enough for Baird to bring a case. Trena's testimony would wither without anyone to corroborate it. After a year, the FBI announced they would be closing their investigation.

The town was deluged by reporters intoxicated by the idea of frontier justice. They composed headlines like "Town Bully is Dead" and "Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante." They knocked on doors and sat down in the tavern. But they couldn't loosen the tongues of the locals.

Highway patrolman Stratton, who knew of McElroy's sinister reputation first-hand—McElroy once terrorized his wife outside of their home with a shotgun—seemed resigned to the town's silence. "They did what they did because we didn't do our job," he said in 2010. "Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn't much David Baird could do about that."

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement, the man Trena named as the shooter, died in 2009. Baird moved to private practice. Trena managed to get a $17,000 settlement in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore's mayor, and Clement, and nothing more.

Skidmore's population continues to dwindle. And as its residents age, it grows even less likely that anyone will come forward with information that could solve the case.

McFadin summarized his feelings in a 2010 New York Times interview. "The town," he said, "got away with murder."

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