In the spring of 1963, the quiet suburb of Belmont, Mass., is rocked by a shocking sex murder that exactly fits the pattern of the Boston Strangler. Sensing a break in the case that has paralyzed the city of Boston, the police track down a black man, Roy Smith, who cleaned the victim's house that day and left a receipt with his name on the kitchen counter. Smith is hastily convicted of the Belmont murder, but the terror of the Strangler continues. On the day of the murder, Albert DeSalvo — the man who would eventually confess in lurid detail to the Strangler’s crimes — is also in Belmont, working as a carpenter at Sebastian Junger’s family’s home. In “A Death in Belmont,” Junger chronicles three lives that collide — and ultimately are destroyed — in the vortex of one of the first and most controversial serial murder cases in America. Here's an excerpt:
ONEOne morning in the fall of 1962, when I was not yet one year old, my mother, Ellen, looked out the window and saw two men in our front yard. One was in his thirties and the other was at least twice that, and they were both dressed in work clothes and seemed very interested in the place where we lived. My mother picked me up and walked outside to see what they wanted.
They turned out to be carpenters who had stopped to look at our house because one of them — the older man — had built it. He said his name was Floyd Wiggins and that twenty years earlier he’d built our house in sections up in Maine and then brought them down by truck. He said he assembled it on-site in a single day. We lived in a placid little suburb of Boston called Belmont, and my parents had always thought that our house looked a little out of place. It had an offset salt-box roof and blue clapboard siding and stingy little sash windows that were good for conserving heat. Now it made sense: The house had been built by an old Maine carpenter who must have designed it after the farmhouses he saw all around him.
Wiggins now lived outside Boston and worked for the younger man, who introduced himself as Russ Blomerth. He had a painting job around the corner, Blomerth said, and that was why they were in the neighborhood. My mother said that the house was wonderful but too small and that she and my father were taking bids from contractors to build a studio addition out back. She was an artist, she explained, and the studio would allow her to paint and give drawing classes at home while keeping an eye on me. Would they be interested in the job? Blomerth said that he would be, so my mother put me in his arms and ran inside to get a copy of the architectural plans.
Blomerth’s bid was the low one, as it turned out, and within a few weeks he, Wiggins, and a younger man named Al were in the backyard laying the foundation for my mother’s studio. Some days all three men showed up, some days it was Blomerth and Wiggins, some days it was just Al. Around eight o’clock in the morning my mother would hear the bulkhead door slam, and then she’d hear footsteps in the basement as Al got his tools, and then a few minutes later she’d watch him cross the backyard to start work. 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 talked a lot about his children and his German wife. Al had served with the American forces in postwar Germany and been the middleweight champion of the American army in Europe. Al was polite and deferential to my mother and worked hard without saying much. Al had dark hair and a powerful build and a prominent beak of a nose and was not, my mother says, an unhandsome man.
My mother was born in Canton, Ohio, the year of the stock market crash to a nightclub and amusement park owner named Carl Sinclair and his wife, Marjorie. Canton was a conservative little city that could be stifling to a woman who wanted more than a husband and children — which, as it turned out, my mother did. She wanted to be an artist. At eighteen she moved to Boston, went to art school, and then rented a studio and started to paint. Her parents looked on with alarm. Young women of her generation did not pass up marriage for art, and that was exactly what my mother seemed to be doing. A few years went by and she hadn’t married, and a decade went by and she still hadn’t married, and by the time she met my father, Miguel, in the bar of the Ritz Hotel her parents had all but given up.
When my mother finally got married at age twenty-nine it was welcome news, but my father could not have been exactly what her parents had envisioned. The son of a Russian-born journalist who wrote in French, and a beautiful Austrian socialite, he had come to the United States during the war to escape the Nazis and study physics at Harvard. He spoke five languages, he could recite the names of most of the Roman emperors, and he had no idea how the game of baseball was played. He also had made it to age thirty-seven without getting married, which alarmed any number of my mother’s female friends. Against their advice she eloped with him to San Francisco, and they were married by a judge at the city hall. A year later my mother got pregnant with me, and they bought a house in a pretty little suburb called Belmont.
The studio they built, when it was finally finished, had a high cement foundation set into a slight hill and end walls of fir planks with a steep-pitched shingle roof that came down almost to the ground. There was a Plexiglas skylight at the roof peak that poured light onto the tile floors, and there was a raised flagstone landing that my mother populated with large plants. The job was completed in the spring of 1963; by then Blomerth and Wiggins had moved on to other work, and Al was left by himself to finish up the last details and paint the trim. On one of those last days of the job, my mother dropped me off at my baby-sitter’s and went into town to do some errands and then picked me up at the end of the day. We weren’t home twenty minutes when the phone rang. It was the baby-sitter, an Irishwoman I knew as Ani, and she was in a panic. Lock up the house, Ani told my mother. The Boston Strangler just killed someone in Belmont.
The victim’s name was Bessie Goldberg, and she had been found by her husband raped and strangled in their home on Scott Road. Several days earlier, a sixty-eight-year-old woman named Mary Brown had been raped and bludgeoned to death in the small town of Lawrence, north of Boston. They were the eighth and ninth sex murders in the Boston area in almost a year, and the city was in a state of terror. My mother rushed out to the studio where Al was painting on a ladder and told him the news. It’s so scary, my mother remembers telling him. I mean, here he is in Belmont, for God’s sake! Al shook his head and said how terrible it was, and he and my mother talked about it for a while, and eventually she went back into the house to start dinner.
My mother didn’t see Al again until the next day. He showed up with Blomerth and Wiggins because the job was almost done and they had to start packing their tools and cleaning up the site. Blomerth had brought a camera for the occasion, and he arranged us all inside the studio and took a photograph. I’m looking straight at Blomerth — no doubt because he said something to get my attention — and my mother, seated on a maplewood bench, is looking down at me, her firstborn child, rather than up at the camera. She is thirty-four years old, and her dark brown hair is pinned high on her head and she wears a paisley shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up and she appears primarily interested in the baby on her lap. Behind my mother and off her right shoulder is old Mister Wiggins standing politely in a sweater-vest with his hands clasped behind his back and a claw hammer jammed headfirst into his front pocket. His shirt is buttoned right up to his chin, and he looks like he’s at least seventy-five years old. Standing next to Wiggins and directly behind my mother is Al.
Al and I are the only people looking directly at the camera, and whereas I have an infant’s expression of puzzled amazement, Al wears an odd smirk. His dark hair is greased up in a pompadour, and he is clean-shaven but unmistakably rough looking, and he has placed across his stomach one enormous, outspread hand. The hand is visible only because my mother is leaning forward to look at me. 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.
Excerpted from “A Death in Belmont” by Sebastian Junger. Copyright © 2006, Sebastian Junger. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.