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Sebastian Junger's acclaimed -- and controversial -- narrative reexamining the 1963 murder of Bessie Goldberg and the identity of the Boston Strangler has drawn criticism from Goldberg's daughter. Read her Customer Review of A Death in Belmont and a joint response from the author and publisher.
One 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, Blomerthsaid, 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.
Excerpted from A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger Copyright © 2006 by Sebastian Junger. Excerpted by permission.
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FACTUAL REVIEW OF DEATH IN BELMONT
I am the daughter of Bessie Goldberg. My mother was murdered on March 11, 1963, in our family's home in Belmont, Massachusetts. Roy Smith was tried and convicted of the murder. The jury's verdict was returned after more than two weeks of trial on November 23, 1963. On April 15, 1966, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed that conviction in a 12-page written opinion. Smith died of lung cancer in August 1976.
Sebastian Junger has written the book 'A Death In Belmont' about my mother's murder. Mr. Junger grew up in Belmont and was a toddler when my mother was murdered. From the beginning his confessed intention was to argue that Roy Smith was innocent of my mother's murder. It is undisputed that Roy Smith was a day laborer who was sent by the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security to perform cleaning work for my mother at our home in Belmont on March 11, 1963, the day of the murder. Junger writes that Smith claimed to have arrived at our home before noon, never informing the reader that it was established by disinterested witnesses at trial that Smith left the Division's office on Huntington Avenue in Boston at between 11:45 a.m. and 12 noon and arrived at our home in Belmont at about 12:45 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. The interviewer at the employment office thought that she detected liquor on Smith's breath. See 350 Mass. 600 at 604 (1966). Several witnesses testified that Smith left our house in Belmont at about 3:05 p.m. Id. Nowhere does Junger make it clear that Smith was in our house with my mother for between two hours and five minutes and two hours and twenty minutes before he left. Moreover, Junger fails to inform the reader that after Smith's departure, the work for which he was hired was clearly incomplete. "The living room was in disorder, most of the furniture was in the middle of the room, the divan was pushed to one corner, living room ornaments were on the dining room table, and the vacuum cleaner, with attachments, was in the center of the living room." 350 Mass. 600 at 604. There was no sign of a struggle in the living room, where my mother's body was found – with her eyeglasses still on -- or anywhere else in the house. Rather, the physical evidence at the crime scene indicated that the cleaning job was proceeding in an orderly fashion under my mother's direction but was still in progress and had not been completed when my mother was murdered. Smith lacked any explanation for the physical evidence. Instead, he told the police that he was at the house almost twice as long (from 12 noon to 3:45 p.m.) as he in fact was and insisted that he had completed the cleaning job and had left all the rooms in order.
As with Smith Mr. Junger has no explanation for the vital, physical evidence from the crime scene. Mr. Junger says that Mr. Smith's statement to the police about when he left our house are inconsistent with the attempt of a guilty man to exculpate himself. That is incorrect. They are entirely consistent with a guilty man who wanted to maximize the time he was at our house that afternoon in order to support his false statements that he had finished the cleaning job and nothing eventful had transpired between him and my mother. Second, Smith an impecunious, alcoholic day-laborer who lived from day-to-day, could give the police no explanation for the amount of money he had spent in the 24 hours after the murder. The amount of those expenditures, and the bill denominations, were consistent with the money in my mother's possession at the time of the murder. 350 Mass 600 at 606. A Death In Belmont provides no explanation for this purported coincidence. Third, the night of the murder, after drinking with friends for several hours, Smith is twice driven past his apartment building, where plainclothes policemen are waiting for him. When he sees the policemen he tells his friend, who is driving, not to stop but to "go faster, they are still here." 350 Mass. 600 at 605-606. Fourth, Smith had previously pleaded guilty to felony assault. He had been charged, while under the influence of alcohol, with putting a loaded handgun to the head of a woman in Harlem and pulling the trigger. The gun failed to fire. Of course, the jury in Smith's trial for the murder of my mother was, correctly, never told this fact, nor was it part of the record reviewed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Mr. Junger explains away these last two points by claiming "racism".
According to Mr. Junger, Smith justifiably wanted to avoid the police the night of the murder because the Boston police were racist. Similarly, Smith's conviction in New York was tainted by racism although Mr. Junger never tells us the race of the woman whom Smith attacked with the handgun in Harlem. At no time did the police believe my mother was killed by the 'Boston Strangler' as Roy Smith who was immediately the prime suspect had been in prison during many of these murders. In fact two FBI agents at the scene told me most of the stranglings were copycat killings. The purse the killer stole was a wallet easily hidden in a pocket. Our family has always believed Smith murdered my mother in order to steal her money. He hoped 'The Boston Strangler' would be blamed for her death. 'A Death in Belmont' is certain to disappoint readers who are expecting a carefully researched, non-fiction work from an objective and truthful journalist. Instead they are given a propagandized account of my mother's murder that, while rich in supposition, repeatedly ignores and sweeps the facts away in the service of the author's purported childhood social and political convictions.
Leah Goldberg March 15, 2006
Author and Publisher Response
Leah Goldberg, who lost her mother in a murder described in Sebastian Junger's book, A DEATH IN BELMONT, suffered a terrible loss decades ago. The author and publisher recognize Ms. Goldberg's grief as well as her right to an opinion about the book and the trial on which it is based. In the interest of accuracy, however, it must be stated that A DEATH IN BELMONT is the product of three years of research and expert consultation. The manuscript was read by six Massachusetts legal experts, including the original prosecutor and defense attorney in the Roy Smith murder case; thousands of pages of trial testimony were read by a sitting judge, a Boston homicide prosecutor, and a top appellate attorney, who then read the whole manuscript for error or omissions, and the manuscript was checked by an independent, professional fact-checker. Recommendations by all of these professionals were incorporated into the text. Nowhere in the book does the author draw any conclusion about Roy Smith's innocence or guilt.
Ms. Goldberg's online posting asserts that the book fails to mention that Smith gave the incorrect time for his arrival at her mother's home; in fact, reference to Smith's error appears on p. 91; his departure time is noted on pp 15, 51, and 247. The matter of how long Roy Smith spent at the Goldberg house and when he arrived and/or left is discussed on pp. 15, 51, 123, 240-241, and 255-256. The posting asserts that the book fails to mention that the furniture in the living room was found in disarray, but that fact that is mentioned on pp.15 and 101. Ms. Goldberg asserts that Smith's statements to the police "are entirely consistent with a guilty man"; the book discusses why this is not the case on pp. 51 and 256. Ms. Goldberg claims the book fails sufficiently to address the fact that Smith spent more money than he was paid; the book discusses this on pp. 120-121. The posting suggests that the book "explains away" Smith's reluctance to confront the police officers waiting for him at his apartment; the book discusses Smith's avoidance of the police on pp 110-111, 121-122 and 256. Ms. Goldberg asserts that at no time did the police believe her mother was killed by the Boston Strangler. When Roy Smith was convicted of the murder, police investigators continued to probe the possibility that someone else may have committed the murder. There are no omissions in the book that were deemed legally consequential by the experts the author consulted, including the original defense and prosecution attorneys in the case.
Nowhere in the book is it suggested that racism was solely responsible for Smith's conviction; the book makes it clear that Smith was found guilty because he was an excellent candidate for the murder. He was an alcoholic and petty criminal who couldn't keep his story straight during a twelve hour interrogation with police. However, we now know - because of the spate of DNA exonerations that we read about almost weekly in newspapers - that even people who look extremely guilty occasionally are, in fact, innocent. That is the heart of the "reasonable doubt" standard that every jury must struggle with when its members decide whether or not to sentence someone to death or to prison.