REVIEW: “A Death in Belmont”

Writer Sebastian Junger – author of such popular books as Fire and The Perfect Storm – grew up in the suburban Boston town of Belmont, Massachusetts. From an early age, Junger knew that a woman was murdered in a house not too far from his own, but his parents always glossed over the details when he was a boy, and Junger eventually forgot all about it.

That is, until one day, years later, when he came back to his parent’s house for a visit. He was going through a box of family memorabilia and came across this picture:


The photograph shows a one year-old Junger sitting on his mother’s lap in the family’s living room. Behind his mother, Ellen, is an elderly handyman named Floyd Wiggins. Standing next to Wiggins, and directly behind the Jungers, is a man named Albert DeSalvo, although you probably know him better as the Boston Strangler.

Here’s what happened: Junger’s mother was a painter, and ever since she and her husband moved to Belmont she’d longed for a small studio where she could paint and give art lessons to neighborhood kids. The couple had even gone so far so to have blueprints drawn up and take bids for the work. And then one day, out of the clear blue, she sees Wiggins and another man named Russ Blomerth standing in the street outside the house. The two appeared to be talking about the house, as Wiggins seemed to be pointing out the home’s architectural features.

Ellen went outside to see what the men were doing. Wiggins apologized for worrying her, and introduced himself as a carpenter from Maine who had built the house many years ago. Ellen asked if they would be interested in building the studio for her, and when they said they were, she ran back inside and got the blueprints. Wiggins and Blomerth took a good look at them and later submitted a bid for the work. Because their bid was substantially lower than anyone else’s, the Jungers decided to hire them.

The work began with laying a foundation, and for that Wiggins and Blomerth needed their assistant, Albert DeSalvo. All three of them came to work on that first day, although in the future the crew would “rotate”, and perhaps only Blomerth and DeSalvo would show up, or maybe only DeSalvo, or maybe only Wiggins.

One day, Ellen was at home, alone with baby Sebastian, when DeSalvo showed up to work on the studio. She heard the bulkhead door slam (a bulkhead door is an angled external door to the basement, much beloved in tornado and horror films). Ellen opened the interior basement door and saw DeSalvo standing there, with a glassy, faraway look in his eyes. He said that the washing machine appeared to be broken, and asked her to walk down the stairs and take a look at it. Ellen, knowing that DeSalvo was supposed to be working on the detached studio and had no reason to be inside the house, told him she’d look into it later. She closed the door and locked it behind her.

She didn’t think much about the encounter, even a couple of weeks later when an elderly woman named Bessie Goldberg was found murdered in her home less than two miles away from the Junger house. DeSalvo had been at the Junger home that day, working on the studio.

She didn’t think much about it because a black man named Roy Smith was almost immediately arrested for the crime. Smith had been sent out to the Goldberg’s home by the state’s employment office. In exchange for a few dollars and bus fare, Smith was supposed to clean the house and do various other odd jobs. But when Bessie’s husband, Israel, came home, he found her dead, in much the same manner as the rest of the Boston Strangler’s victims.

The crux of the book, then, is about who killed Bessie Goldberg. There is reasonable doubt as to whether DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler at all, and almost as much doubt as to whether Smith killed Goldberg. Although Junger paints Smith as a victim of a prejudiced jury and police department as well as inferior legal representation, he does gloss over significant evidence that points to Smith’s guilt. And Junger does seem to have drunk the “DeSalvo might not have been the Strangler” Kool-Aid.

Still, even though this book has a lot of flaws, it’s an interesting read from someone who was actually involved in the case, even if he was too young to remember it at the time. The book flows really well and is an easy read, even if it seems that Junger has already made up his mind most of the time.

The sad thing is, we will probably never know what really happened with the Strangler cases in general, and the Goldberg case in particular. DeSalvo was killed in prison on November 25, 1973 and Roy Smith died of cancer before he could be freed after DeSalvo’s confession.

There’s one last interesting coincidence in the story, too.

DeSalvo grew up with an incredibly abusive father, and his mother refused to leave him… until DeSalvo was away doing a stint at reform school. When he got out, he found that his mother had moved the family, sans husband, into some apartments in the rough Boston suburb of Chelsea, Massachusetts.

The apartments were diagonally adjacent to an commercial building owned by… Israel Goldberg, who’d inherited it from his father. The building housed several retail stores, a couple of banks and a movie theatre. Goldberg liked to stand in the lobby of the theatre on Saturdays and smoke cigars and watch patrons file in. There’s no telling how many times an young DeSalvo walked right past his future [alleged] victim’s husband without even knowing it!

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