The titular act in Sebastian Junger‘s A Death in Belmont is the 1963 rape and murder of Bessie Goldberg in Belmont, a quiet, white suburb of Boston. There was no sign of forced entry and within a couple of days of the murder, the police arrested Roy Smith, a career petty criminal who had been hired to clean the Goldberg’s house on the day of the murder. Tried on purely circumstantial evidence, Smith was convicted of murder, yet acquitted of rape, thus sparing him the death penalty, but still sending him to prison for life. Later in life he became a cause celebre amongst many people, who lobbied aggressively for his commutation, arguing that had he been white, he never would have even been arrested.
Meanwhile, from 1962 to 1964, Boston was terrorized by the infamous Boston Strangler, and although the Goldberg murder fit the pattern of the Strangler, Smith was quickly ruled out as being the Strangler seeing as he had been imprisoned at the time of many of the attacks. However, in early 1964, a victim identified the Strangler as Albert DeSalvo, and on his arrest, he confessed to being the Strangler, although his descriptions of the attacks contained flaws and doubts have always remained as to whether he was in fact the real Boston Strangler. Fascinatingly, DeSalvo was once a contractor for Junger’s family, and at one point cornered Junger’s mother in their house, only to be deterred when Junger’s mother claimed that her husband was in the next room. Thus Junger grew up knowing that the Boston Strangler had almost had his mother as well.
Junger does an excellent job at bringing to life the early 60s and vividly demonstrating how the dogmas and prejudices of the time shaped the investigation and prosecution of Smith and DeSalvo. Through clear and crisp prose, he investigates whether it was indeed likely that Smith was not the real killer of Goldberg, and whether there is in fact reasonable doubt that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. In the end, all he can conclude is that in the age before DNA testing, it was extremely hard for a case to be black and white, and that both individuals there is both strong evidence that they did in fact perform the crimes for which they were convicted as well as compelling reasons to doubt their guilt.