A Brush with Evil
In his new book, Sebastian Junger takes us back to 1963, when Bessie Goldberg was found in her home strangled with a stocking.
Albert DeSalvo, the handyman who later admitted to being the Boston Strangler, was working alone at Sebastian Junger's parents' house the afternoon that a neighbor, Bessie Goldberg, was murdered. (Globe File Photo)
ONE MORNING IN THE FALL OF 1962, when I was not yet 1 year old, my mother, Ellen, looked out the window and saw two men in our front yard. One was in his 30s 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 20 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 saltbox roof and blue clapboard siding and stingy little sash windows that were good for conserving heat. Now it made sense.
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.
Within a few weeks Blomerth, 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 8 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 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.
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 20 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. It was the ninth sex murder 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 cleaning up the site. Blomerth had brought a camera for the occasion, and he arranged us all inside the studio and took a photograph.
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 cleanshaven 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.
JOHN F. KENNEDY WAS PRESIDENT, America was not yet at war, and Belmont, Massachusetts, where Israel Goldberg and his wife, Bessie, had moved 10 years earlier, was arguably the epitome of all that was safe and peaceful in the world. There were no bars or liquor stores in Belmont. There were no dangerous parts of Belmont, or poor parts of Belmont, or even ugly parts of Belmont. There had never been a murder in Belmont. It was - until the moment Israel Goldberg glanced into the living room - the ideal place to live.
The first thing he noticed was his wife's feet, which protruded from behind the corner of the wall. Israel stepped into the living room to investigate. A standing lamp had been knocked over, and its pedestal was now propped on the arm of the divan. Between the lampshade and the knocked-over lamp lay the immobile body of his wife. Bessie Goldberg was on her back with her skirt and apron pulled up and her legs exposed. One of her stockings had been wound around her neck, and her eyes were open, and there was a little bit of blood on her lip. The first thought that went through Israel Goldberg's mind was that he'd never seen his wife wearing a scarf before. An instant later he realized that her head was at the wrong angle, that her face looked puffy, and that she wasn't breathing.
According to children playing on the street, Israel Goldberg was inside less than a couple of minutes before he screamed and ran back out and demanded to know if they had seen anyone leave the house. They hadn't, though they would later remember a black man passing them on the sidewalk as they walked home from school. A black man was not a common sight in Belmont in 1963, and virtually every good citizen who had seen him walking down Pleasant Street that afternoon remembered him.
In hindsight -- Belmont now forever marred by its first murder -- some witnesses agreed that the black man might have looked like he was in a hurry. He had glanced back several times. He had walked fast, hands in his coat pockets, and had almost walked into some bushes as he passed the neighborhood children. The black man had stopped in at the Pleasant Street Pharmacy across the street and then reemerged a few minutes later with a pack of cigarettes. The teenage boy who worked at the pharmacy said that he had bought a pack of Pall Malls for 28 cents but had not seemed nervous. A middle-aged woman said that he hadn't seemed nervous but that the skin of his face was "pocky." The black man was tall and thin and wore brown checked pants and a black overcoat. Soon it would be known that he crossed the street to the bus stop and boarded the first bus that came, which, unfortunately, was going in the wrong direction. Instead of getting off, he stayed on it to Park Circle, smoked a cigarette with the bus driver during the five-minute layover, and then continued back toward Cambridge. He stepped off the bus in Harvard Square at 19 minutes to 4 and walked past Out-of-Town News to the closest bar he could find. He would have been sitting at the bar counter ordering a 10-cent beer just as Israel Goldberg opened the door of his strangely quiet home.
When Leah Goldberg, Bessie and Israel's 24-year-old daughter, arrived at the murder scene, she was led by a police officer to her grief-struck father. Leah chose not to look at her mother's body. She did cast around the house, though, and spotted on the kitchen counter a piece of paper that the police officers had missed. It was from the Massachusetts Employment Security Office, and it had a name written on it. Shortly after that discovery the phone rang, and a woman named Mrs. Martin asked for Israel Goldberg. Mrs. Martin said she was calling from the Massachusetts Division of Employment Security and just wanted to know how the new cleaning man had worked out.
He murdered my wife, that's how he worked out! Israel Goldberg screamed into the phone.
The name on the employment stub was Roy Smith. At 11:13 p.m. the police issued a bulletin, accompanied by Roy Smith's mug shots and fingerprint data from a previous arrest, announcing that he was wanted for murder in the town of Belmont. If Roy Smith had indeed killed Bessie Goldberg -- and by now the authorities knew that his criminal history included grand larceny, assault with a dangerous weapon, and public drunkenness - they had their first break in a series of murders that had virtually paralyzed the city of Boston.
The public called the killer the "Boston Strangler," and a special investigatory unit -- the "Strangler Bureau" -- had been convened to track him down. They had screened 2,500 sex offenders and brought in 300 of them for close questioning. They had interviewed 5,000 people connected to the victims and combed through half a million fingerprint files. It was the most thorough investigation in Massachusetts history, and their spectacular lack of success was leading the public to attribute nearly supernatural qualities to the killer: He was inhumanly strong; he could break into any apartment; he could kill in minutes and leave no trace at all. Women bought guard dogs. They only went out in pairs. One particularly high-strung woman heard someone in her apartment and leaped to her death from her third-floor window rather than face whatever it was. Virtually every month there was another sick, brutal murder in Boston, and the 50-man tactical police unit -- specially trained in karate and quick-draw shooting -- was helpless to stop them.
It was right around that time -- the fall of 1962 -- that my mother had her first experience with the workman named Al.
ELLEN JUNGER, Belmont, Massachusetts: "It was quite early. I heard the bulkhead door slam, and I heard him go downstairs, I was still in my nightgown and bathrobe, and I hadn't gotten dressed yet. I heard him come in, and two or three minutes later I heard him call me. So I opened the door to the cellar, and I saw him down there at the foot of the stairs and he was looking at me. And he was looking in a way that is almost indescribable. He had this intense look in his eyes, a strange kind of burning in his eyes, as if he was almost trying to hypnotize me. As if by sheer force of will he could draw me down into that basement."
My mother knew almost nothing about Al at this point; it was only two or three days into the job, and they had never even been alone together. She stood at the top of the stairs looking into Al's eyes and wondering what to do. What is it, Al? she finally said. There's something the matter with your washing machine, he told her.
My mother thought about that. Al had been in the house only a couple of minutes and the washing machine wasn't even on. Why was he worrying about it? He was supposed to be outside building a studio, not in our basement worrying about the appliances. It didn't make sense. Clearly he wanted to get her down into the basement, and clearly if she did that things could go very wrong. My mother told him that she was busy, and then she closed the basement door and shot the bolt.
A few moments later she heard the bulkhead door bang shut and the sound of Al's car starting up. He drove off and did not come back for the rest of the day. My mother didn't tell my father about the incident because she was afraid he would overreact and cause a scene, but she decided that when she saw Russ Blomerth the next morning, she would tell him she didn't want Al working on the property anymore. The next morning my father left for work and this time the whole crew showed up for work -- Mr. Wiggins, Russ Blomerth, and Al. My mother got ready to confront Blomerth, but when she saw Al, he was so friendly and cheerful -- Hi, Mrs. Junger, good morning, how are you? -- that she hesitated. Was she overreacting? Did she really want to get a man fired for the look in his eyes?
Al never again gave her the sort of look he had in the cellar that day -- a "bold male look," as my mother described it -- but there was still something about him that made her uneasy. She gave private art lessons at home, and every week a teenager named Marie came by in the afternoon to learn to draw. One afternoon Marie arrived before my mother, and she let herself in to the newly finished studio to wait. It was a warm day, and she was dressed in a madras shift, and Al must have noticed her through the plate-glass windows because the next thing she knew, he was standing next to her. You must be the model, he said. Oh no, I'm just the student, she said. Al put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. But your waist is so small, you've got to be the model, he insisted. Right at the point when she began worrying what was going to happen next, my mother walked in. There's Ellen! she said and broke from Al's weird hug. She ran over to my mother and told her what had happened, and my mother went outside and told Al that she didn't like what she had heard. Aw, she's just a kid, she's so cute, Al said. I just wanted to hug her. My mother told him that she didn't want anything like that to ever happen again.
"WHAT IS YOUR NAME?"
"Where do you live, Roy?"
"One seventy-five Northampton Street, Boston."
"Did you come out to Belmont yesterday?"
Roy Smith was in a chair in a back room of the Belmont police station. Gathered around Smith were Belmont police officers, a detective, and a lieutenant detective from the state police barracks named John Cahalane. Cahalane was the highest-ranking officer in the room and was sent by the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office because of the grave implications of the case. The interrogation started off with the Belmont police asking Smith to tell them, step by step, what he had done the morning before. Smith said he took the bus to Belmont, asked directions at a local gas station, and arrived at the Goldberg house just before noon. He said that Bessie Goldberg made him a bologna sandwich for lunch and then showed him what to clean after he'd finished eating. He said he cleaned the couch and the floors and the windows. He said he cleaned what he thought was the library - "It had a lot of books in it" - and the living room and the dining room. He said that he was paid $6.30 and that he left around a quarter to 4.
Much of a police interrogation consists of asking about otherwise meaningless details in a suspect's day that he can't possibly keep track of. Once the police have opened up even a small contradiction in the testimony, they have a way into the web of lies that inevitably surrounds any denial of guilt. It was Lieutenant Cahalane who attempted to break through the denials.
"Listen Roy. At the time this happened to the woman-"
"-that somebody knocked her flat-"
"I haven't knocked nobody flat."
"I'm telling you; you listen."
"At the time somebody attacked this woman, you were the only one in the house, so naturally we have to figure that you were the one who attacked her. Now, are you the one who attacked her or not?"
"Yes, someone's got to get blamed for it."
"No, I didn't figure that. That is why we're talking to you. We don't want to put anything on you. All I want is the truth."
"There's got to be some kind of way you all could see whether I'm lying or not."
"That's what we're trying to figure out," said Cahalane. "If something happened accidentally, all you have got to do is say so. If she were standing on a table or chair and fell off and you grabbed her all you got to do-"
"Do you mind if I say something?"
"I don't mind."
One can imagine Smith drawing himself up for this. The police have asked Smith to step into their shoes for a moment; now Smith was doing the same. "My home is in Mississippi," Smith said.
"There's no way I'd take no white woman because I love my neck, you understand?"
"But this is the North, not the South," said Cahalane.
"I know that too."
"You have a lot more freedom up here."
"I'm telling you one thing: I ain't going to take no one's woman, Jesus Christ, especially a white woman, you kidding? I've got more sense than that, Jesus Christ."
"But still, the woman was lying on the floor, wasn't she?"
"That woman wasn't touched when I left there, no sirree. If I touched that woman do you think I'd be still messing around here? Are you kidding? I ain't touched no woman. Maybe somebody come by after I left."
The interrogation of Roy Smith went on into the early hours of March 13. After 12 hours of questioning, Smith still refused to admit his guilt, and the police had no choice but to let the district attorney take over.
On the one hand, Smith was a longtime petty criminal with several assault charges on his record who was the last known person to have seen the murder victim alive, and who had left the victim's home less than an hour before the body was found. On the other hand, not one shred of physical evidence linked Smith to the body, and not one person saw him do anything wrong. People saw him go into the Goldberg home. People saw him leave the Goldberg home. People saw him take the bus, buy his liquor, ride around town, do whatever he did, but no one saw him kill Bessie Goldberg. Roy Smith's case was entirely circumstantial but nearly airtight, marred only by the fact that he refused to admit that he did it. A jury would have to step in and say it for him.
IT WAS SOMETIME in early March of 1965 that the phone rang in our house, and when my mother answered it, she was surprised to hear Russ Blomerth on the line. Russ hadn't called in two years -- not since the studio had been finished -- but he had odd and urgent news. Mrs. Junger, he told her, I don't know how to tell you this. But I've just found out that Al DeSalvo is the Boston Strangler.
He was just caught on a rape case, Blomerth went on. And then he confessed to being the Boston Strangler. DeSalvo had begun making lengthy confessions to the police, and Blomerth had already been contacted by investigators to provide corroborating evidence. DeSalvo, as it turned out, had been alone or off the clock for every single strangling in the Boston area. The authorities were particularly interested in December 5 and December 30, 1962, which were the days Sophie Clark and Patricia Bissette had been killed. Blomerth said his records showed that on those days, Al had come to our house by himself. "The exact hours that he did this I have no way of knowing," Blomerth testified in writing.
So Al had left our house and gone on to kill a young woman. Or he had killed a young woman and then showed up to work 20 minutes later; either possibility was too horrifying to contemplate. Al had spent many, many days working in the studio while my mother was home alone; all he'd had to do was ask to use the bathroom, and he was inside the house with her. It would be stupid to kill someone you were working for -- you'd be an immediate suspect, like Roy Smith.
My mother hung up the phone and shuffled through her memories of DeSalvo. What about the afternoon when Bessie Goldberg was killed; could Al have driven over to Scott Road - which he passed every day on his commute from his home in Malden -- and killed her and then gone back to work?
Al had stood at the bottom of the cellar stairs and called up to my mother with an odd look in his eyes. For a moment, at least, our basement was a place where the very worst things imaginable could happen without anyone around to prevent them. Was there some equivalent place in Al's mind where he went in those moments -- some dark cellar hole filled with dead women and a staircase leading back up into the rest of his life?
The story about Bessie Goldberg that I heard from my parents was that a nice old lady had been killed down the street and an innocent black man went to prison for the crime. Meanwhile -- unknown to anyone -- a violent psychopath named Al was working alone at our house all day and probably committed the murder. In our family this story eventually acquired the tidy symbolism of a folk tale. Roy Smith was a stand-in for everything that was unjust in the world, and Bessie Goldberg was a stand-in for everything that was decent but utterly defense less. Albert DeSalvo, of course, was a stand-in for pure random evil.
Our family's story was so perfect that I didn't question its simplicity until I was much older. Its simplicity was rooted in the fact that the tragedy on Scott Road had brushed our family but had never really affected us. That was a piece of good luck that I eventually realized could easily have been otherwise. What if, for example, my mother hadn't gone out on the day of the murder; what if she had just stayed home with me? Would Al have gotten his terrible urge and killed my mother instead of Bessie Goldberg? Would some other journalist now be interviewing me, rather than the other way around?
One of the conceits of my profession is that it can discover the truth; it can pry open the world in all its complexity and contradiction and find out exactly what happened in a certain place on a certain day. Sometimes it can, but often the truth simply isn't knowable -- not, at least, in an absolute way. As I did my research I came to understand that not only was this story far messier than the one I'd grown up with, but that I would never know for sure what had actually happened in the Goldberg house that day. So if I was to say something meaningful in this story, I would have to do it without discovering the truth. But maybe the truth isn't even the most interesting thing about some stories, I thought; maybe the most interesting thing about some stories is all the things that could be true. And maybe it's in the pursuit of those things that you understand the world in its deepest, most profound sense.