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Florida History: The Lonely Hearts murder

Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post
Janie Stackhouse in her orange grove near Avon Park. She later was murdered.

Readers: Today, we hear about a classic murder that to no surprise, happened in Florida.

In an era before online dating, some made use of “lonely hearts clubs” to find people and write letters — you know, on paper — in hopes that love would blossom. As is the case now, such contact with strangers had its perils.

Janie Bielling, raised in north Florida and living in Avon Park, north of Sebring, was prosperous. She owned a grocery store, two properties and an orange grove. She had already gone through four marriages and been widowed in the fourth. When she was 58, she turned to the lonely hearts club. Sure enough, she received a response. It was a letter from Russell Chester Stackhouse.

Stackhouse, a caretaker at Baltimore University, had been married three times before Janie. The two married on Valentine’s Day, 1953, in Baltimore. The romance lasted five months and didn’t end well.

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Highlands Sheriff Broward Coker would later call Stackhouse “a pretty good carpenter” who renovated two of Janie’s homes, then got joint ownership of her properties. “Not too long afterward, she disappeared,” he said.

On July 25, relatives reported they hadn’t heard from Janie. Four days later, a stepson came across a makeshift grave in an orange grove next to the one Janie owned. Tissues had been stuffed down her throat and a rope was around her neck.

READER REWIND: Everyone has their own piece of Florida history. Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.

The “lonely hearts” angle brought the case and story national notoriety. A judge later ruled Stackhouse “insane” — a term no longer used —and sent him to the state mental hospital in Chattahoochee, northwest of Tallahassee. In 1965, after 12 years, Stackhouse was ruled competent for trial. But he again pleaded insanity.

In August 1965, Stackhouse, then 72 and described in a news article as

“pale and feeble,” handed a judge a 50-page hand-written confession and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to 10 years in state prison.

But what happened after that?

Florida Time archives: Get caught up on the stories you’ve missed

Courts, prosecutors and law enforcement in Highlands County, as well as local historical societies, told us they have no documents about such an old case; just news clips. Even the Florida prison system said its records for that era were purged long ago. People involved in the case have died.

We did find someone in New England who matched Chester Stackhouse’s name, birthplace and date of birth. Apparently he died without fanfare in 1980. Did we find the Lonely Hearts killer? We tracked down relatives to be sure but they said they were distant and did not even know Chester.

Readers: Can you help?

Next week: Batista Museum

Last week: Florida History: Ghosts, car races and more in Sebring

Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.

Russell Stackhouse, then 72, leaves the Highlands County Courthouse on April 12, 1965, \12 years after his wife was found murdered.