A Death in Belmont Analysis

A Death in Belmont (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

The ldquo;six degrees of separation” theory known to popular culture states that every person in the world is personally connected to every other person via a chain of fewer than six people. The chain between the author and the subjects of this book is considerably shorter than six. When Sebastian Junger was a year old, his family had an addition built onto their house in Belmont, Massachusetts, so that his mother, Ellen Junger, could have her own artist’s studio.

Opposite the book’s title page is a photograph taken by the contractor on March 12, 1963, which shows the author, his mother, and two of the workers. One of those workers was Albert DeSalvo, who later became infamous as the Boston Strangler. On the previous day, when DeSalvo was working alone at the Junger house, Belmont resident Bessie Goldberg was murdered only 1.2 miles away. (The distance was later determined by police officers.) Roy Smith, a thirty-five-year-old African American former convict, was convicted of the murder. Junger’s parents, however, always speculated that DeSalvo was the true murderer. This book is the result of Junger’s research into the crime.

There are actually five stories in the book, and Junger skillfully interweaves them. The first is the story of the building of the home addition and Ellen Junger’s relationship with DeSalvo. Except for two incidents, it was a cordial businesslike relationship in which the two would occasionally sit down and have lunch together. On his second day on the job, DeSalvo entered the basement from an outside entrance, announced that the washing machine was not working, and tried to entice Ellen to join him there. Fortunately, Ellen had a bad feeling about him and refused. She never mentioned the incident to anyone until after DeSalvo confessed to the Boston Strangler murders, because she did not want him to get fired.

On another occasion, she caught DeSalvo fondling one of her art students, a sixteen-year-old girl. Afterward, she took care that they were never alone together. When an acquaintance called her to tell her the news of the Goldberg murder and to lock her doors, she rushed outside to tell DeSalvo that one of the strangler murders had occurred nearby. No one knows if DeSalvo appreciated the irony.

The second story thread covers the Goldberg murder and Smith’s arrest and trial. Mrs. Goldberg had arranged with an employment agency to send someone to clean her house. This person was Roy Smith. Around 2:30 p.m., her husband, Israel Goldberg, telephoned and spoke to Mrs. Goldberg, who was home alone with Smith. Smith left the house around 3 p.m., according to witnesses. After stopping at a store to buy cigarettes, he boarded a bus. Fifty minutes later, Mr. Goldberg came home and discovered his wife’s dead body. Two minutes later, he came out of the house screaming for someone to call the police. He could account for his time that day, and no one believed he could have killed his wife and staged the scene in two minutes, so he was never seriously considered a suspect. Someone had strangled Mrs. Goldberg with one of her own stockings and sexually assaulted her, like most of the Boston Strangler murders. Two off-duty rookie police officers tracked Smith down and arrested him.

The main evidence against Smith was the undeniable fact that he was at the house on the day of the murder. He claimed that Mrs. Goldberg was still alive when he left, but fifty minutes is a window of opportunity, albeit small, for someone else to have entered the house and committed the crime. There were witnesses, however, who testified that no one entered or left through the house’s front door between the time Smith left and Mr. Goldberg arrived. The argument in favor of Smith’s guilt also included the facts that the house was never really cleaned, fifteen dollars were missing, there was no evidence of a forced entry from the back door or a window, Smith had a criminal record, and he was an alcoholic.

The argument against Smith’s guilt rested on the absence of either a witness or any physical evidence linking him to the body. This was long before DNA testing. He was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Junger raises the question of whether DeSalvo’s close proximity constitutes reasonable doubt. Smith’s trial took place in 1963, and DeSalvo did not confess to the...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)

A Death in Belmont Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 4.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 5 (March 1, 2006): 221.

Library Journal 131, no. 6 (April 1, 2006): 110.

New Statesman 135 (June 19, 2006): 67.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 16, 2006): 12.

Newsweek 147, no. 15 (April 10, 2006): 58-59.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 7 (February 13, 2006): 70.

The Spectator 301 (May 20, 2006): 46.

Time 167, no. 15 (April 10, 2006): 75.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 26, 2006, p. 36.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 82 (April 8, 2006): P8.