A Death in Belmont

A Death in Belmont

by Sebastian Junger


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A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

In 1963, with the city of Boston already terrified by a series of savage crimes known as the Boston Stranglings, a murder occurred in Belmont, just a few blocks from the house of Sebastian Junger's family -- a murder that seemed to fit exactly the pattern of the Strangler. Roy Smith, a black man who had cleaned the victim's house that day, was convicted, but the terror of the Strangler continued.

Two years later, Albert DeSalvo, a handyman who had been working at the Jungers' home on the day of the Belmont murder, and had often spent time there alone with Sebastian and his mother, confessed in lurid detail to being the Boston Strangler.

By turns exciting and subtle, A Death in Belmont chronicles three lives that collide -- and are ultimately destroyed -- in the vortex of one of the most controversial serial murder cases in America. The power of the story and the brilliance of Junger's reporting place this book on the short shelf of classics beside In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060742690
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 04/03/2007
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 295,710
Product dimensions: 7.96(w) x 10.88(h) x 0.71(d)

About the Author

Sebastian Junger is the New York Times bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont and Fire. He is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and has been awarded a National Magazine Award and an SAIS Novartis Prize for journalism. He lives in New York City.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

January 17, 1962

Place of Birth:

Boston, Massachusetts


B.A. in Anthropology, Wesleyan University, 1984

Read an Excerpt

A Death in Belmont

By Sebastian Junger

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Sebastian Junger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0061126667

Chapter One

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.


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Customer Review from Leah Goldberg

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.

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A Death in Belmont 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sebastian Junger's latest book, A Death in Belmont, is a gripping account of the murder of an elderly woman in the early 1960's in Belmont, Massachusetts. The victim, Bessie Goldberg, was raped and then strangled with her own stocking. A black, day worker, by the name of Roy Smith, was subsequently charged with the capital crime. The evidence against Smith was compelling, but circumstantial. He was convicted by an all white jury of first degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole, but always maintained his innocence. His sentence was later commuted. However, he died in prison before his release. What is fascinating about the story is that, unbeknownst to the jury, at the time of the murder a construction worker was quietly working at the author's childhood home just a few blocks from the Goldberg home. The construction worker was Albert DeSalvo. Sometime later DeSalvo admitted to police and prosecutors that he was the so-called 'Boston Strangler'. The Strangler's modus operandi was remarkably similar to the Goldberg murder. Interestingly, DeSalvo grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts virtually across the street from a building owned and operated by Bessie Goldberg's husband. Undoubtedly, their paths crossed in the past, long before the murder. The author spent three years reviewing trial transcripts, interviewing witnesses, and researching the law. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, who was one of many Junger spoke to regarding issues of law. He also was interested in the history of Chelsea, where I practice, the hometown of the Goldbergs and DeSalvo. As a legal practitioner, I found the book to be a masterful and extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. Most journalists would be reluctant to re-examine the facts of a recent murder case, where the trail is still fresh. In A Death in Belmont, Junger analyzes not only the facts of the Goldberg murder, but also the Boston Strangler murders. He traveled to rural Mississippi to interview Roy Smith's family. He talked to witnesses that were involved in the investigation of both the Smith case and the Strangler cases. He talked to sitting judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to get a sense of the type of justice that Roy Smith would receive today. What is truly unique about Junger's approach is that he assumes the role of a well- informed juror and wrestles, along with the readers, about what is a true and just verdict. He does not answer the ultimate question, but rather leaves readers to reach their own conclusions. If the jurors had the benefit of hindsight, and knew that someone a few blocks away was an admitted mass murderer with a strikingly similar pattern, would they still have convicted Roy Smith? Can the public accept the notion that the criminal justice system is imperfect and necessarily must acquit in the face of reasonable doubt, even if in its heart it believes the defendant did the crime? Stated another way, Roy Smith may have committed the crime, but should still have been found not guilty. As Junger explores these issues he takes us back to the early 1960's, where even in progressive Massachusetts there were profound racial problems. For example, at least one key witness recalls his attention being drawn to Roy Smith because he was the only black man in the area. Racism is so insidious that one can only speculate whether it quietly leaked into the case. Bessie Goldberg's daughter, Leah Scheuerman, is publicly challenging the premise of the book. Understandably, she is upset that it reopens the wounds that were created by the untimely death of her mother. Nevertheless, unbiased readers could not reasonably deny that the case against Smith was circumstantial and the jury did not hear all of the relevant facts. In Ms. Scheuerman's attack of the book she cites the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling in the Smith case, where the Court uph
piefuchs on LibraryThing 1 hours ago
Highly readable, well written account of a famous person's brush with an infamous person. When he was a child, Junger's mother had a studio built on to the house - one of the worker turned out to be the Boston strangler. Naturally this leads to all sorts of "whatifs" and "couldas" but, alas, they are not the center of the book. The focus of the book is Junger's theory that a woman killed on a nearby street was a victim of the Boston Strangler, rather than the ne'er do well African American who was convicted of the crime. I am somewhat convinced he is right - and so is he. The book is part personal and part argumentative - hences lack focus and fails at both.
Gingersnap000 on LibraryThing 1 hours ago
Growing up in the 1960's while the terror of the Boston Strangler made headlines drew me to this book. The book clearer paints a picture of a community that was very prejudice and rightfully so. I am now convinced more than ever after reading Mr. Junger's intense research, the right man was put in prison.If you lived in the Boston area in the early sixties, the book is an excellent read
edhead on LibraryThing 1 hours ago
Fascinating, and creepy. A nice look at the criminal justice process.
bhowell on LibraryThing 1 hours ago
A spell binding read of true crimes, murder and its terrifying effect on a Boston suburb
DaveFragments on LibraryThing 16 hours ago
One of the spookiest books that I've ever read. And it's a true story about a serial killer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BostonAustin More than 1 year ago
What would you do if the carpenter who had worked in your house for months, who you ate lunch with, and talked to on a regular basis, turned out to be the Boston Strangler? And, years later, you found out that your own mother came close to being another one of his victims? From the gruesome crime scene descriptions to the suspenseful trials that resulted in convictions and an excruciating sentence of a presumably innocent man, A Death in Belmont , is a horrifying conglomeration of legal records and one man's recollection of his encounters with his carpenter, who confessed to being the real Boston Strangler. Junger digs deep into official records and court documents to help depict the trials of Roy Smith and Al DeSalvo, both convicted of killing women in the Boston Area. The most interesting parts of this story are the author's interviews with DeSalvo himself, which lead the audience deeper and deeper into the sociopathic psyche of a serial murderer and rapist. In the interview we learn more gruesome details about the horrifying murders of those thirteen women than we ever wanted to know. Not only is the concept of this novel compelling, but Junger's writing style keeps you coming back for more. Nearly every part of this story has some sort of twist or turn that is sure to keep readers on the edge of their seats and the surprising conclusion will never disappoint. I would recommend this novel to anyone who would enjoy a surprisingly true story about the accounts of the alleged Boston Strangler.
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eak321 More than 1 year ago
On March 11, 1963, a woman by the name of Bessie Goldberg was murdered in the surburban town of Belmont, outside Boston, Mass. "A Death in Belmont" examines her death, along with flashbacks and asides about the U.S. justice system, U.S. law, and related crimes. Sebastian Junger, the author, has a personal interest in the subject matter of this non-fiction book. He lived in the same neighborhood of Belmont as Bessie Goldberg when she was murdered and possibly even met the real Boston Strangler in his own house. Junger not only gives the reader an account of the Boston Strangler's grisly murders from police and newspaper reports, but he also draws from his personal life and times, having grown up during that time and area. He then mixes in U.S. and world history events such as the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War, giving us a sense of the pulse of the nation while the murders were occuring. He uses all of this information to weave together a story of sorts that jumps around piecing together "the big picture" for the reader. I enjoyed that the book wasn't just all about the Boston Strangler murders. Junger used the cases of the Boston Strangler as an outline, but then gave us a history of the city of Boston (and Belmont), included an education about legal terms and trial proceedings to help us understand what was going on with the investigations and trials, and let us peek into his childhood memories. Before reading "A Death in Belmont," I had heard of the Boston Strangler, but didn't really have much knowledge of the crimes and resulting trials because all of the murders occurred before I was born. Junger's book was an eye-opener, and the ongoing mystery of the crimes parallels those of Jack the Ripper.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, I was looking for another book based around the same topic. My mom told me this book was similar and that I should read it for my summer reading. I would first like to say that this book does not compare to In Cold Blood at all. Capote¿s book is exceedingly better than Junger¿s. However, that is not to say that A Death in Belmont is a bad book, it is just not in the same category as Capote¿s. I thought Junger¿s story was a bit unorganized. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. Since I knew that this story was about a serial killer, I could not figure out what the first chapter was talking about. However, after reading the rest of the chapters it became clear how the two stories were eventually going to connect. On that point, I would have liked if there were less chapters on the job that Al was doing at the Junger¿s house. I feel the book would have been better if there were more chapters on the trial and maybe even after the deaths of the characters and what has happened recently. The suspense that Junger tried to build did not work. I could tell at chapter 3 that Al was the Boston Strangler, so I was not surprised to find this out towards the end of the book. However, there were many good aspects of the book that I enjoyed. I enjoyed how Junger gave as unbiased of an account as possible. I know that he was deeply involved emotionally in this case but I think he did a good job in trying to separate himself from it. For most of the book, the information was presented in an objective manner that just presented the facts and not Junger¿s opinion. As well, I thought that the amount of detail that Junger was able to get was remarkable. I enjoyed the detail in the interrogation and what Roy Smith did before, during, and after the crime. I also enjoyed that the story was told from a variety of point of views. The reader was able to see the crime in the perspective of many of the people involved. While the whole story was told in first person, Junger was able to capture the emotions that the rest of the characters felt throughout the novel. For example, I enjoyed seeing the crime from the victim¿s husband, the detectives, and Roy Smith. Overall, I thought that Junger did a good job in writing this book. I was captivated by the book and continually wanted to read it to find out the overall outcome of Roy Smith¿s case and the actual Boston Strangler case. While I am a true crime novel reader, I think that anyone would enjoy this book. In the end, I feel that Junger did as well of a job as he could have and I recommend this book to other readers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't get interested in this book. The story is unclear. The author is rambling and opinionated - hardly what I expected.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book because it didn't have a tidy ending. It seemed to be as unbiased as it could be, with the author having such a personal investment in the subject mater. It presented several options (as to whether Roy Smith was the killer and as to whether Al DeSalvo was in fact the Boston Strangler) and gave good arguments both pro and con for each of those options. It didn't change my mind, but it made me think.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love a good mystery. This isn't one. Even for a 'beach read', I want good writing. Loved 'The Perfect Storm', so I was especially disappointed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book makes no sense. Mr. Goldberg arrived home and called the police 45 minutes after Smith, a parolee with a record of theft, violence, and alcoholism had left. Children who were playing in front of the house for more than half that time saw no one other than Mr. Goldberg approach the house. Junger says Smith, later convicted of the murder, told only the truth to the authorities. Smith told police he had cleaned the Goldberg home leaving everything in order. Yet the living room furniture was found in the middle of the room with the vacuum cleaner. The mirror was covered with glass cleaner. There was no evidence of a break-in. Is Junger asking us to believe that Albert DeSalvo, in that short period of time, could have driven more than a mile across town, past 95 houses and Belmont Center, and somehow have entered that very same house? Did he murder Bessie Goldberg, locate and steal her money, then stay around to move the living room ornaments on to the dining room table without leaving any prints? Did he then push the living room furniture into the center of the room along with the vacuum cleaner not disturbing Smith's handprints which were found on it and on the yet to be cleaned mirror? Did DeSalvo then leave the Goldberg home, again unnoticed?
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was interesting, never bored me, and did not read like a history book. If you are interested in the Boston Strangler or Boston history I would absolutely recommend it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't get through this book. How could this book be compared to 'In Cold Blood'????
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿A Death in Belmont¿ is an example of poor journalism. Instead of writing objectively Junger neglects to include much of the evidence against Roy Smith leading the reader to believe Smith may be innocent. Smith's appeal of the conviction is never discussed in the book. Never is the reader told the results of the appeal when in 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction stating in its opinion 'The jury could have found unusual opportunity, motive, possession after the crime of unexplained funds, incriminating action in leaving the house in disorder and the work unfinished, and subsequent conduct and false statements showing consciousness of guilt. This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact.'