Reddit's 'Murder Cookies' Have a Surprisingly Wholesome Backstory

A Maine bakery's award-winning recipe isn't a secret anymore.
January 15, 2021, 4:24pm
Reddit Old Recipes Murder Cookies
Image via Reddit/NearKilroy

Reddit's 2020 Year in Review numbers really emphasized what a consistently smoldering landfill  last year was. The statistics confirmed that we didn't get out much: There was a 44 percent year-over-year increase in the number of active users on the site, the amount of activity in the r/sourdough subreddit almost quadrupled compared to the previous year, and the TV-related community with the biggest number of subscribers was r/TigerKing. God, 2020 was shit. 

When we weren't making Joe Exotic memes and debating whether to get sourdough starter from a stranger on Nextdoor, we were scrolling through r/old_recipes—another subreddit that saw a significant jump in user activity—and baking something called Murder Cookies, which have a flavor that has been compared to both gingersnaps and pumpkin pie. Although the cookies were last year's fourth-most discussed old recipe, murder beats peanut butter bread any day.

A Redditor named u/NearKilroy discovered the recipe shortly after moving into an historic house in Portland, Maine. After having a couple of weird experiences in her new-old place, she tried to learn about the previous residents—including one who may or may not have killed his wife there. "The house was really old, and stuff from the fridge kept going missing," NearKilroy told VICE. Things would fall off the shelves, and the basement was just super creepy, like with pictures of Jesus nailed to the walls."

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When she finally managed to identify the old owners using an old census, NearKilroy said, she found out that the wife hadn’t died of natural causes. "The husband abruptly moved away like a week later and remarried within a few months," she said. "Her mechanism of death was never determined; it was the early 1900s, so crimes weren't exactly taken seriously. [The reports] never explicitly said murder, just suspicious circumstances, but that, paired with the husband moving and how young she was, [implied] murder." 

The census document NearKilroy found also gave the names and occupations of the other people who lived on the street. "The next door neighbor to our house had his occupation listed as 'baker,' and the bakery name was under his place of work," she said. "We Googled around and found a newspaper article with that bakery's cookie of the year, aka the murder cookies." 

She shared the recipe in r/OldRecipes, noting that she stumbled across it while "looking into a murder that took place in my house." Although the dessert had previously been called Cushman's Bakery's "Secret Scotch cookies," a commenter wrote, "Mmm, murder cookies," and the name stuck.

I haven't been able to determine the etymology of the name "Scotch cookies"—they don't contain whisky or butterscotch—but a representative from the Maine Historical Society told me that it could be because of their “relationship to [Scottish] shortbread.” Another possibility is that it’s a reference to the relatively inexpensive ingredient list, which only requires a single egg and opts for shortening over butter. "Scotch" has been used as a slang synonym for "cheap" and "frugal."

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According to an article previously published by the Historical Society, a man named Nathan Augustus Cushman moved from New York to Portland in 1908. Less than six years later, he opened a Cushman's Bakery at the corner of Elm and Kennebec streets. He'd had a run of successful bakeries in White Plains and hoped that his breakfast loaves and fresh-baked breads would be a hit in his new hometown, too. That wasn't the case—at least not at first. 

"The French and Viennese breakfast rolls popular in New York were not to the taste of Mainers, who were accustomed to having doughnuts for their morning meal," the Historical Society wrote. "Even the fresh-baked loaves did not sell as Nathan Cushman had expected. Women continued to make labor-intensive homemade loaves rather than opt for the convenience of Cushman’s home delivery, for it was believed that only lazy and neglectful housewives did not make bread for their families." 

After several years' worth of struggles, a couple of menu changes, and a lot of free samples, Cushman's finally took off. He opened a second bakery in Lynn, Massachusetts in the late 1920s and, at its peak, Cushman's employed more than 600 people in Portland, while almost 900 worked in Lynn. Cushman died in 1952 at age 83. Hissons sold their controlling interest in the business a decade later, and it ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1969. 

After the bakery closed, it seems like its "secret" recipe stayed mostly secret for several decades—until, that is, a woman from nearby Chebeague Island, in Maine, reached out to Harris Bakery, the company that bought Cushman's and its recipes, and asked if they'd share it. 

"Long after the bakery vanished, a group of ladies on Chebeague Island has rediscovered the secret Cushman recipe and shocked the world by baking Scotch cookies out there themselves," editor Colin Sargent wrote in Portland Monthly in 2009. "No Scotch cookie had darkened a mainland doorstep in over two decades, and yet here they are." 

The recipe was published in Chebeague Island Cooking, a cookbook assembled by the Chebeague Parents Association. "If there’s a funeral, a baby shower, or any kind of get-together, the church’s ladies auxiliary group will have Scotch cookies there," Deborah Bowman, the director of the Chebeague Island Library, told the magazine. "It’s not just a few people who keep making Scotch cookies—it’s everybody here.”

Fast-forward to this year, and now those hyper-local cookies have gone the most wholesome kind of viral. Not only were they one of Reddit's most popular Old Recipes of the year, there's now an entire r/MurderCookie subreddit filled with pictures of other users' cookies, questions about flavor variations and ingredient substitutions, and other things that the mods say could be "[kept] out of r/OldRecipes." 

NearKilroy says that, since finding the recipe, she's made it "a dozen or more times." She's even left one out for the ghost that also lives in her house. "The ghost is, we assume, the wife that died there," she said. "We addressed her by name all the time. She's a total chiller. She wants to remain elusive, I think, but I bet she's happy to know the cookies are getting popular again, almost a century later."