Sebastian Junger

A Death in Belmont

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A Death in Belmont Summary

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A Death in Belmont (2006) is a true-crime book by American author and journalist Sebastian Junger. Winner of the PEN/Winship Award for Nonfiction, A Death in Belmont chronicles the brutal rape and murder in 1963 of Bessie Goldberg, an elderly housewife in a Boston suburb. Although the murder took place during the timeframe in which the infamous Boston Strangler killed thirteen women, the man convicted of Goldberg’s murder was a black man whom Junger believes is innocent. The story has an additional eerie resonance for Junger whose family employed Al DeSalvo, the man who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler.

Starting on June 14, 1962, a series of single women between the ages of nineteen and eighty-five were murdered in and around the Boston area. Due to a number of similarities between the cases, authorities believed that one man was responsible for the attacks. In nearly all the crimes, the women were sexually assaulted and strangled to death. No sign of forced entry was identified in any of the crimes, leading authorities to believe that the perpetrator was a handyman or delivery man whom the victims let into their homes. Due to extensive media coverage of the murders, women all over the Boston area invested in tear gas, new deadbolts, and other security measures. Other women moved out of the area completely. So desperate were authorities to solve the murders that Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke permitted paranormal psychologist Peter Hurkos to use extrasensory perception or ESP to try to identify the killer. Brooke was widely ridiculed by the press for this decision.

By 1963, at least seven women had already been killed, suspected to be victims of the Boston Strangler. On a day in March of that year, an elderly housewife, Bessie Goldberg who lived in the idyllic Boston suburb of Belmont was brutally raped and murdered. Goldberg had hired a black handyman named Roy Smith who had been seen by neighbors leaving her house. The sight of a black man in Goldberg’s affluent part of town was enough to draw suspicion, and authorities arrested Smith. After a short trial, Smith was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison.

In evaluating Smith as the possible perpetrator of Goldberg’s brutal murder, Junger provides some back-story about the man’s life. Born in Mississippi, Smith was convicted of larceny as a young man and sent to Parchman Prison, one of the most violent prisons in the American South. Later, Smith relocated to the Northeast where he indulged in drinking and mostly petty criminal activity. However, Smith did commit at least one very serious crime. He tried to shoot a woman, only failing to do so when the gun misfired. For this crime, Smith was sentenced to New York’s Sing Sing Penitentiary, another very violent prison. Nevertheless, Junger insists that Smith “was not a habitually violent man, and he was certainly no career criminal.” According to transcripts of police interrogations, Smith made no attempt to hide his whereabouts on the day of the murder, suggesting to Junger that he is either innocent or foolhardy. Junger also suggests that race was a significant factor in Smith’s conviction: “Lacking incontrovertible evidence or damning testimony, a trial inevitably turns into a popularity contest, and this one was no exception.”

Meanwhile, on the day of Goldberg’s murder, Al DeSalvo was working in Junger’s own suburban Boston home when the author was just a baby. DeSalvo would later confess to killing the thirteen women whose deaths were attributed to the Boston Strangler. While many, including Junger, have doubts that DeSalvo killed all of the women, DNA evidence later connected DeSalvo to at least one of the victims, Mary Sullivan. Junger relates a chilling incident that occurred when DeSalvo was working as a carpenter in the Junger household the day before Goldberg’s murder. Junger’s mother says, “I heard [DeSalvo] come in, and two or three minutes later I heard him call me. So I opened the door to the cellar, and I saw him down there at the foot of the stairs and he was looking at me. And he was looking in a way that is almost indescribable. He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotize me. As if by sheer force of will he could draw me down into the basement.” Although Junger’s mother was undoubtedly disturbed by the incident, she didn’t want to get a man fired for a look in his eyes.

On November 25, 1973, after serving six years of a life sentence, DeSalvo was murdered by a black inmate. Junger believes this was in retaliation for Smith’s presumably wrongful imprisonment.

While the book cannot offer any definitive answers as to who killed Goldberg, how many women DeSalvo killed, or whether Smith was innocent, A Death in Belmont is a chilling chronicle of a terrifying period in Boston’s history.