A Death in Belmont

Chock one up for the “stranger than fiction” genre. In June of 1962, Anna Slesers was found raped and strangled in her Boston home. Over the next 18 months, another eleven (or twelve) Boston area women were victims of roughly the same heinous crime. Most of these crimes were eventually attributed to a person known as the Boston Strangler, who kept Boston and the surrounding suburbs in a constant state of fear for years.

About nine months into this reign of terror, in March of 1963, Bessie Goldberg of Belmont, MA was raped and murdered, also in her own home. This had many ingredients of a Boston Strangler slaying and was particularly surprising because until then, Belmont had been a quiet, quaint, murder-free town. Upon hearing of the murder, Ellen Junger, a young mother living not far from Bessie Goldberg in Belmont, came home with one-year old Sebastian in tow and described the horrific crime to a carpenter named Al DeSalvo. DeSalvo was around Junger’s house often because he was assisting on construction of an addition to Junger’s home.

DeSalvo and the Jungers play important parts in this story. Al DeSalvo would eventually confess to eleven of the Boston Strangler murders. Sebastian Junger would eventually become a world-famous author and write a bestseller about the strange circumstances surrounding his mother, his home, the Boston Strangler, Al DeSalvo, and a man named Roy Smith.

Wait a second, who was Roy Smith? Well, Roy Smith was convicted for the murder of Bessie Goldberg.

What?

Yeah, the Goldberg rape and slaying would never be attributed to the Boston Strangler because there appeared to be overwhelming evidence that a petty criminal named Roy Smith was the perpetrator. Smith had admittedly been at the Goldberg home that day on a cleaning assignment and was seen by many exiting the Goldberg’s home shortly after the murder would have taken place. It appeared to be an open-and-shut case and Smith was eventually found guilty, but authorities couldn’t pin any of the other Strangler crimes on him.

The Strangler crimes continued and eventually DeSalvo confessed to the murders, except for Bessie Goldberg’s, after being indicted on several rape charges. Smith was already locked up at this time. The Roy Smith trial and the Al DeSalvo confession are the central parts of the book. Did Roy Smith kill Bessie Goldberg? Was Al DeSalvo really the Boston Strangler or a just a sick, serial rapist who read about the Strangler in the papers?

Junger delves into all of this stuff with a zeal of someone who was actually there but still can’t believe it happened. Here’s how he sums it up:

The story about Bessie Goldberg that I heard from my parents was that a nice old lady had been killed down the street and an innocent black man went to prison for the crime. Meanwhile – unknown to anyone – a violent psychopath named Al was working alone at our house all day and probably committed the murder.

He goes on to say:

As I did my research I came to understand that not only was this story far messier than the one I’d grown up with, but that I would never know for sure what had actually happened in the Goldberg house that day. Without DNA evidence Smith’s guilt or innocence would always be a matter of conjecture. By extension DeSalvo’s possible role in the murder would also be a matter of conjecture, and I would never know for sure how close I had come to losing my mother.

Both Al DeSalvo and Roy Smith are dead. DeSalvo was killed in prison in November 1973 after being stabbed in the chest 16 times. He was a bad man and remained a bad man in prison. Smith, however, was a model prisoner. He never got in to any trouble, supervised the prison kitchen, and completed a college degree. His sentence was commuted in August 1976, but he wasn’t able to enjoy his freedom long because he died from cancer a few days after he left prison.

Riveting stuff. Junger digs deep into all aspects of this tragedy. He’s a curious guy and goes off on interesting tangents. He brings to light the racial situation at the time. He tries to capture the effect of the Kennedy assassination (it occurred during the Roy Smith trial). He describes in detail the legal differences between homicide, murder, manslaughter and all the permutations thereof. He digs into the American prison system, the death sentence, and the insanity defense. He throws in some interesting history on Boston, Belmont, and Oxford, Mississippi. It’s just an endless stream of well-researched, important information that I wish I could retain more of. It’s a lot to pack in to 266 pages. Reading it is well worth the time.