A Death in Belmont

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1807

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...

(The entire section contains 1855 words.)

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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 strangler murders until 1965. An appeals court reviewed the case in 1966 and did not order a retrial.

The third story, and the most interesting one, is a biography of Roy Smith, for which Junger traveled to Mississippi to interview Smith’s relatives. The son of a Mississippi preacher living in Oxford, Smith worked in a supermarket and picked cotton before joining the Marines, became a petty criminal after his discharge, served time in Mississippi’s maximum security prison, called Parchman Farm, and in New York’s in Sing Sing, moved around to different cities, fathered a son, and finally wound up in Boston. His rap sheet included assault with a dangerous weapon, grand larceny, burglary, public drunkenness, and driving under the influence of alcohol. However, it did not include murder or any sex crime.

After his conviction for the Goldberg murder, he became a model prisoner, worked in kitchens, and rose to become the supervisor of one that served 150 meals a day. Because of his good behavior and doubts about his guilt, the state’s Advisory Board of Pardons concluded that he would be a good candidate for early release and recommended that his sentence be reduced to time served. A chain smoker, Smith died of lung cancer in 1976, just a few days after Governor Michael Dukakis signed his commutation papers.

Junger discusses the problem of race throughout the book, especially Parchman Farm and life for African Americans in Mississippi and the rest of the United States. It is this aspect that makes the work much more notable than the average “true crime” book. Smith was an African American, and Belmont was a predominantly white community. Because he was a black man walking alone in a white neighborhood, there were several witnesses who not only remembered Smith but also noted the time. The investigating police officers, the prosecutors, the jurors, and the judge were all white males. Even in a liberal state like Massachusetts, the possibility existed that racist views could have biased the jury against Smith.

The book’s fourth story is that of the Boston Strangler murders and the investigation. Smith was a suspect for only a few days, because he had the best possible alibi: He was in jail when most of them occurred. There were eleven murders in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964. (Two were added to the list after DeSalvo’s confession.) The victims were all unmarried women living in apartments. (Bessie Goldberg did not fit the pattern, because she was married and lived in a house.) Most of the murder victims lived alone. None of the apartments showed evidence of forced entry, so these women must have let someone inside. The intruder then strangled them with a piece of their own clothing and, usually, sexually assaulted them. Then the perpetrator left without leaving physical evidence. There were enough differences among the crimes that investigators believed that there was more than one perpetrator. However, the press asserted that the murders were all connected and named the guilty party the Boston Strangler.

The book’s fifth story is a biography of DeSalvo. This part and the one about the strangler murders are the least original parts of the book, because other writers have covered this material. Albert was an abused child who grew up in the Boston area. When he was old enough, he joined the Army and served for eight years. While stationed in Germany, he married a German woman, with whom he had two children. After his discharge, he returned with his family to the Boston area, where DeSalvo made a living working in construction. He was convicted of assault and battery and lewdness in 1961. After his release in 1962, he became the serial rapist known as the Green Man, because he wore green overalls. He would break into a woman’s apartment, tie her up at knifepoint, and then either rape her or just leave. He later claimed to have committed three hundred such assaults and was arrested in 1964.

He confessed to the Boston Strangler murders in 1965 but was actually convicted of the Green Man assaults and sentenced to life in prison. He never made any money from various books and films about the Boston Strangler, but he did sell necklaces made by other inmates under the name “Chokers by DeSalvo.” He was murdered in 1973. There were several suspects, but no one was convicted. Authorities believed the reason for DeSalvo’s murder was that he was dealing in drugs, but some observers believed that he was about to recant his Boston Strangler confession and that the real strangler paid someone to kill DeSalvo. Junger points out that DeSalvo was murdered on the tenth anniversary of Roy Smith’s conviction, which would point toward one of Smith’s friends.

The reader may ultimately find the book to be unsatisfying because Junger never comes to a firm conclusion. He does believe that DeSalvo is more likely to have been the murderer of Bessie Goldberg than Smith but offers no evidence one way or another and even admits the possibility that a third person could have committed the crime. Two of Junger’s sources, The Boston Stranglers (1995, 2002) by Susan Kelly and Search for the Strangler (2003) by Casey Sherman, confuse the issue by arguing that DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler. These writers believe he made the confession in order to become rich and famous. (He achieved the latter but not the former.)

Some of their objections to DeSalvo’s being the Boston Strangler apply to the Goldberg murder as well. Kelly further confuses the issue by pointing out that Smith lived only a few blocks from one of the strangler victims. Using Junger’s logic, Smith’s close proximity should have constituted reasonable doubt that DeSalvo committed that particular murder. While it is true that nonfiction is messier than fiction, the authors of the vast majority of “true crime” books have a strong belief about who is or is not guilty. Another flaw is that Junger really needed to write more about Bessie Goldberg. She was the original victim, after all. Finally, the book could really have used a table of contents or an index, especially considering its nonlinear organization. Overall, however, while this book is not on the level of In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote, the quality of the writing brings it above the average work of New Journalism.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

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.

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