Rolling along Route 2 toward Boston from where I grew up in Lincoln, Belmont always looked appealing to me. Rolling hills, solid houses. There’s something about Belmont. It’s a “pretty little suburb,” as Sebastian Junger calls it. Simple as that. Belmont seemed old—in a good way. Broken-in. Established.
If you lived near Boston in the early 1960’s, the Boston Strangler crept into your nightmares. We had moved to the Boston area when I was six. I was eight (in 1962) when the killings started. I can’t say I tracked every murder. I didn’t. I wasn’t quite yet a news junkie. But there was this vague, hazy darkness that came with the mention of The Boston Strangler. There was this cloud of worry out there. I was the perfect age to be freaked out.
“A Death In Belmont” brought it all back—and reveals so much more. Belmont was no place for the strangler. The strangler didn’t belong in Belmont. Or did he? Did he kill Belmont’s Bessie Goldberg? Could Albert DeSalvo, later arrested and prosecuted and sent to jail for the strangler’s crimes, have killed her?
In fact, DeSalvo worked for a time in Belmont at the house where Sebastian Junger grew up. Sebastian’s family had hired Floyd Wiggins, Russ Blomwerth and a young man named Al to build an artist’s studio in the back. Sebastian’s mother was a painter and wanted to teach, too. “Al never went into the main part of the house, but sometimes my mother would bring a sandwich out to the studio and keep him company while he ate lunch…Al had served with the American forces in postwar Germany and had been the middleweight champion of the American army in Europe.”
There’s a picture with Sebastian and DeSalvo. Sebastian, age one, is in his mother’s lap on a chair. Al is standing behind them. Wiggins is in the picture too. “His dark hair is greased up in a pompadour, and he is clean-shaven but unmistakably tough looking, and he has placed across his stomach one enormous, outspread hand.”
(You have to see the picture, it’s one amazing hand.)
“The hand is at the exact center of the photograph, as if it were the true subject around which the rest of us have been arranged,” writes Junger.
And so begins “A Death In Belmont,” about as gripping a piece of non-fiction, in its own way, as “A Perfect Storm.”
Most of “A Death In Belmont” is built around the notion that the wrong man might have gone to jail for Bessie Goldberg’s murder. That was Roy Smith, a down-on-his luck black man from Boston’s inner city (and originally from The South) who had been paid to clean the Goldberg house on the day Bessie was murdered much in the same fashion as other women who had been strangled, abused or raped.
Junger examines every aspect of the case. He follows every piece of evidence. He tracks Smith’s not-so-pretty life leading up to his arrest. He ponders Smith’s actions during the entire day of Goldberg’s murder. Junger paints the racial scene of the early 1960’s in Boston. He weaves in the assassination of John F. Kennedy Jr. (not too hard to do since the assassination happened as the Roy Smith trial was wrapping up) and the impact it had on Kennedy’s home state. (I was in fifth grade, in school just 10 miles away or so. They sent us all home early.) Junger goes to Smith’s hometown. He probes and prods everywhere he can look. We see Smith’s behavior in prison, his parole hearings, his release. Junger never stays on the surface. He follows threads where they lead, no matter the rabbit hole leads.
I know there are comments out there that suggest Junger believes Smith is innocent. That’s not the case. Ignore those comments. Junger rolls the entire case around, including the many suggestions that Albert DeSalvo, in fact, may not have been solely responsible for all 13 murders generally assigned on his crime-ridden resume. (DeSalvo confessed, later recanted.)
Junger comes at Roy Smith, Albert DeSalvo and all the events in Belmont in March of 1963 with a cold, careful analysis, including a parsing of his own biases. The story of Smith’s possible innocence, after all, had become a bit of folk tale in the Junger household, not only because they knew Al had been working at their house, alone, on the day of Goldberg’s murder.
In any event, the last chapter in “A Death In Belmont” contains a kicker that is pure speculation, but who knows? It makes as much sense as anything. What “A Death in Belmont” comes down to is the foibles of human beings—eyewitnesses, cops, prosecutors, jurors, parole boards and the friends and family of the accused and the innocent. This is a human system—humans determining the guilt or innocence of each other—and there are always going to be issues. Did race add an extra wave of variables in this case? Maybe. Maybe not.
Junger’s recent “War” is a clear-eyed piece of writing and reporting. Of course, “The Perfect Storm” is classic narrative non-fiction. “A Death In Belmont” is right up there with both, a brilliant piece about race, the criminal justice system and one of the most haunting criminals to ever prowl and kill, for years, at will.