Writing Can Be Murder

January 23, 2007

A Death in Belmont

Filed under: Uncategorized — jenniferelbaum @ 3:56 pm

This weekend I read “A Death in Belmont” by Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm). Mr. Junger, who grew up hearing stories about the Boston Strangler (when he was one, the man who would later be named as the Strangler worked on a construction job at Junger’s home) set out to find the truth of the Boston Strangler and another murder that happened during the same time period.

I can’t tell you what the books is about in a neat little blurb. It’s about the Boston Strangler, it’s about a country in turmoil, it’s about the fact that an innocent man may have been sent to prison for a similar murder because he was black, it’s about…doubt.

 I finished the book and I was filled with doubt. I’m still not sure who killed Bessie Goldberg. I’m not even certain that the man who confessed to being the Boston Strangler truly was.

Junger has not so much unravelled a mystery, as he’s woven a complex tapestry of intersecting lives. To his credit, he does not provide the reader with easy answers. I walked away wrestling with some tough questions.



  1. Dear Ms. Elbaum,

    The victim of Sebastian Junger’s story is my sweet and wonderful mother.

    You are unaware that the book is not close to being accurate. Junger needed a story he could tie to his picture of himself and Albert DeSalvo. Unfortunately he chose my mother’s murder. Although the writing contains many inaccuracies I am most upset by the omission and obfuscation of the strong evidence against Roy Smith.

    Junger never discusses Smith’s appeal of his conviction which in 1966 was upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The opinion of the Court spells out the strong evidence against Smith which led the jury and the Court to the certainty of Smith’s guilt.

    On page 256 of his book Junger states that Smith told the truth to the police. Smith lied consistently.

    To summarize:

    1. Smith lied about the time he arrived at our home.

    2. He lied about the time of departure (only there 2 hours, instead of 4)

    3. Smith told the police he had finished cleaning the house and left it in good order.

    4. The house was in the midst of being cleaned when my mother was killed as all the livingroom furniture had been pushed to the center of the room, the vacuum cleaner was in the middle of the room covered with Smith’s fingerprints. A mirror which Smith told police he had never touched was covered with window cleaner displaying Smith’s prints.

    5. Smith claimed he had been paid $1.50 per hour for four hours of work, plus .30 cents for transportation for a total of $6.30. We know from the testimoney of witnesses he was in the house for only 2 hrs.

    6. He couldn’t account for the money,$15.00, (denominations the same as were left by my dad ) he spent.

    7. He hid from the police.

    8. He most likely was drunk when he arrived at our home.

    DNA was not available until 1990. Circumstantial evidence is still used for conviction. In NYC a few years ago a mother and son were convicted of murder even though the police never found the body of the victim.

    Also the police never believed Smith to be the Boston Strangler. State Police and FBI officials told my dad and me the night of the murder that Smith had been in prison during most of the other murders. They told us it was a robbery covered up by a copy cat murder.

    By the way I was never in the Courthouse when the verdict came down and I never told Junger what I thought of Smith’s demeanor when he heard the verdict because I wasn’t there to observe it. I did tell him that when I testified, which was two weeks before the verdict, that Smith seemed unemotional.

    We did not live a few blocks from the Jungers. We lived 1.25 miles away on the other side of town. Between our two homes were 95 private houses, 15 intersecting streets, and about 40 stores in Belmont Center.


    Junger states that on the day my mother died there was a man in the neighborhood dressed in work clothes knocking at doors looking for a job. Junger states that Steve Delaney, a private detective, told him the following story. When checking on Albert DeSalvo several years after my mother’s death Delaney was told by the Belmont Police that an elderly man had called in this tip after he found that my mother had been murdered. Delaney then interviewed my supposed neighbor at his home. He had not offered a job to the fellow who knocked, but had turned him away quickly because the practical nurse employed by them to take care of his invalid wife had called to him. Junger says that the elderly man called the police after spotting the police cars in front of our home.

    THE TRUTH: No one on our street or in eye sight of our home fit the description of an elderly man with an invalid wife who had hired a practical nurse. HOWEVER, our next door neighbor, Dr. Paul Faunce, had an invalid wife and employed a practical nurse. The Faunces were relatively young with a daughter, Susan, not yet in her teens. No one knocked at their door, in fact the practical nurse testified at the trial regarding the time the children were playing in the street. She watched them for quite a while and saw my father come home.

    Delaney never gives the name of the elderly man or his address. Better still, the Belmont Police have no record of any such phone call or tip.

    I do not wish my mother’s death to become a myth.

    If you wish you I’ll send you a copy of the Supreme Court Opinion. I’m attaching some

    Very truly yours,

    Leah Goldberg Scheuerman

    SATURDAY, APRIL 08, 2006


    The Perfect Muddle”: Sebastian Junger’s new book
    SATURDAY, APRIL 08, 2006


    APRIL 8, 2006
    Word Count: 1,379
    A Death in Belmont By Sebastian Junger Norton, 266 pages, $23.95
    The courtroom scene in Sebastian Junger’s “A Death in Belmont” is one of the book’s dramatic highlights. In 1963, a black man named Roy Smith is on trial in Cambridge, Mass., for murder. He has been falsely accused of the crime, Mr. Junger suggests, by a racist legal system that is overlooking the more likely killer: the Boston Strangler. When the all-white jury convicts Smith …
    of murdering Bessie Goldberg, Mr. Junger reports, the victim’s daughter, Leah, is in the courtroom, thinking that the man who killed her mother “looked utterly impassive, as though he expected this and didn’t much care.”

    The shipwreck in Mr. Junger’s best-selling “The Perfect Storm” (1997) left no survivors, but many of the people involved in the story of Bessie Goldberg’s murder are still alive. For instance: Leah Goldberg (now Scheuerman). It turns out that she was not even in Massachusetts on the day Mr. Junger describes. She remembers exactly where she was, because the date was Nov. 23, 1963—the day after the assassination of President Kennedy. “I was in Connecticut, glued to the TV, like everyone else in America,” Ms. Scheuerman told me. She also recalls her mother’s age when she died: Bessie Goldberg was 63. Mr. Junger says she was 62.

    I called Ms. Scheuerman and other principals in the case, including prosecutors and Smith’s defense attorney, because so many of the book’s descriptions raised red flags that I felt compelled to get at the truth of the matter. I’m a district attorney, and reading “A Death in Belmont” seemed like going through the files of a bungled investigation.

    Roy Smith, an ex-convict with an extensive criminal record and a drinking problem, was sent by the Division of Employment Security to clean the home of Bessie and Israel Goldberg on March 11, 1963. Bessie was home alone in the upper-middle-class suburb of Boston. Witnesses saw Smith leave the house 45 minutes before the arrival of Israel Goldberg—who discovered his wife’s body and came running outside, shouting that his wife had been murdered. The house was in disarray; money was missing; Bessie Goldberg had been strangled and her clothes were torn.

    That night, Smith went on a drinking spree with more money than he could later account for, dodging the police until he was eventually arrested the next day. Although the crime occurred at a time when the city was in a state of high tension over killings that had been dubbed the “Boston Strangler murders,” Smith was quickly eliminated as a suspect in those crimes because he had been in jail on unrelated charges when most of the murders were committed.

    In the Goldberg killing, a wealth of circumstantial evidence convinced a jury that Smith was the killer (he was acquitted of a rape charge—which would seem to undermine the suggestion that Smith was the victim of a racist rush to judgment). Mr. Junger discusses the death penalty at length, creating the impression that Smith might well have faced execution, but Massachusetts had functionally abolished capital punishment, executing its last inmate in 1947. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.

    MR. JUNGER WRITES that “the truly innocent are both a kind of prison royalty and uniquely damned, and for one reason or another, Roy Smith joined their ranks.” The wrongful conviction of this “truly innocent” man is core to the book, but the more I looked into the case, the more I realized that Mr. Junger had selectively chosen facts and quotes from sources that would tell the story he wanted to write. The author doesn’t use direct quotes from Smith’s long-time defense attorney, Beryl Cohen, or from the prosecutors in the case, or from any of the principal characters in the case. Leah Scheuerman told me that she spoke with Mr. Junger but then became so concerned about the direction of his story that she withdrew her cooperation.

    Mr. Junger maintains in the book that the entire prosecution was based not on catching Smith in a lie but on his truthful statements to investigators: “The logical problem with the state’s case … is that its core elements are known only because he told the truth.” Yet Smith’s own words to the police are damning.

    It would take a book in itself to address all the gaps and tangled thinking in “A Death in Belmont,” but let’s take one point: As Leah Scheuerman observes, if we do indeed accept Smith’s word that he finished cleaning the house and left at 3:45 p.m. (witnesses put the time at 3:05), then, given that her father arrived at 3:50, there would have been only five minutes for anyone other than Smith “to break down the back door, kill my mother, mess up the just-cleaned house, move the furniture around and somehow place Smith’s fingerprints on a mirror he told police he had never touched.”

    Smith’s case was appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court—a fact that would seem ripe for use in a book concerned with his wrongful conviction, but Mr. Junger does not mention it. The legal challenge didn’t center on malfeasance suggesting Smith’s innocence but on the contention that the jury should not have been deliberating with emotions running so high over President Kennedy’s assassination. As the court stated, rejecting the appeal: “This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact.”

    “A Death in Belmont” is a story of personal importance to the author. When Mr. Junger was an infant living in the same town as the Goldbergs around the time of the murder, his parents hired a contractor who in turn used a worker named Albert DeSalvo—the man who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler. But readers expecting Mr. Junger to have unearthed new evidence pointing to DeSalvo as Bessie Goldberg’s murderer will be disappointed; there isn’t any.

    RUTH ABRAMS WAS one of the two assistant district attorneys who prosecuted Smith. She went on to serve on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and retired in 2000. Mr. Junger interviewed Ms. Abrams, but she is not mentioned in the book. Ms. Abrams told me that she remembers the case well and that she never doubted Smith’s guilt. “Either Smith did it or her husband did,” she says, “and all the evidence pointed to Smith.”

    Though at some junctures Mr. Junger says he’s wrestling with the question of Smith’s guilt or innocence, the pose in unconvincing. “All governments are deceitful—they’re deceitful because it’s easier than being honest,” he writes. As a consequence, he says, “there are significant numbers of innocent people in prison.”

    That thinking conforms with the message sent by many popular books, movies and TV dramas. But a real-world study last year, led by University of Michigan Law Prof. Samuel Gross, documented just under 400 exonerations between 1989 and 2003—out of more than 10 million felony convictions. Mr. Gross says he suspects that many more exonerations went uncounted, but even if the actual number of wrongly convicted innocents is 10 times Mr. Gross’s count, the legal system is 99.998% accurate.

    Far from being later exonerated (as Mr. Junger implies and as publicity material for the book outright claims), Smith was simply the beneficiary of the generosity of Michael Dukakis, Massachusetts’s governor at the time, who commuted his sentence in 1976. (Prisoners “are getting out right and left,” Smith wrote from prison. “This year’s been like cake and honey for lifers”). Smith’s guilt or innocence was not addressed; the commutation was issued—as Smith’s defense attorney told me—strictly because of the convict’s good behavior and his failing health. Smith died of cancer three days after being paroled.

    In the afterword of “The Perfect Storm,” Mr. Junger tells of a dream he had in which a key character who died aboard the Andrea Gail comes up to him and says, “So you’re Sebastian Junger. I liked your article,” and then shakes his hand.

    I wonder if Bessie Goldberg will ever visit Mr. Junger in the deeps of his dreams.

    Comment by Leah Goldberg — January 24, 2007 @ 8:50 pm

  2. Leah Goldberg suffered a tragic loss and I have no doubt that this book must stir up painful memories for her.

    In response to Ms. Goldberg’s accusations, I’ve decided it would only be fair to post the responses of Mr. Junger and his publisher that I found online.

    Statements from the author and publisher about

    Leah Goldberg, who lost her mother in a murder described in Sebastian Junger’s new book, A Death in Belmont, suffered a devastating 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. Various news organizations and online sites have published comments by Ms. Goldberg about Mr. Junger’s book, and it is therefore necessary for us to make available the following statements and rebuttal.

    Statement by Sebastian Junger:

    Leah Goldberg suffered a terrible tragedy decades ago, and my heart goes out to her. As a journalist, however, I am compelled to point out that my book is the product of three years of research and consultation with legal experts. To ensure absolute objectivity, I asked a sitting Massachusetts judge, a Boston appellate attorney and a well-known and respected homicide prosecutor to read thousands of pages of trial testimony and then explain to me the most salient points of both the defense and the prosecution. The resulting manuscript was then vetted and edited by these experts, and I made corrections they suggested. The manuscript then went to the original defense and prosecution attorneys in the case and was similarly amended. Finally, the entire book was rigorously fact-checked by an independent, professional fact checker. There were no omissions deemed legally consequential by the experts I consulted, including the original defense and prosecution attorneys.

    Statement from W. W. Norton & Company:

    Sebastian Junger is recognized internationally as an award-winning journalist. His new book, A Death in Belmont, reflects that well-earned reputation. The manuscript was read for accuracy by six Massachusetts legal experts, including the original prosecutor and defense attorney in the Roy Smith murder case; the full case file was read by a sitting judge, a Boston homicide prosecutor, and a top appellate attorney, who then read the whole manuscript, and the manuscript was checked by an independent, professional fact-checker. Recommendations from all of these professionals were incorporated into the text. Sebastian Junger is sensitive to the fact that his book discusses events that had a devastating, lifelong impact on the victims’ families, and he recognizes their profound grief.

    Response to Leah Goldberg’s online posting on barnesandnoble.com and other sites:

    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.

    Comment by jenniferelbaum — January 25, 2007 @ 12:19 pm

  3. Somehow I lost the link for the above when I pasted it in. Sorry!


    Comment by jenniferelbaum — January 25, 2007 @ 8:03 pm

  4. Here is the evidence from the upheld appeal never mentioned in Junger’s self serving account. Read it carefully and decide for yourself.

    [350 Mass. 600]


    Middlesex. February 7, 1966. — April 15, 1966.

    Present: WILKINS, C.


    2. There was no error in the denial of the motion for a directed verdict. The evidence was circumstantial. The jury could have found as follows: On the morning of March 11, 1963, the defendant walked from his apartment at 175 Northampton Street, Boston, to the district office of the Division of Employment Security on Huntington Avenue. Between 11:45 A.M. and 12 noon he left that office with an identification card introducing him to Mrs. Goldberg at 14 Scott Road, Belmont, and a slip directing him to that address. The interviewer at the employment office, thinking that she detected liquor on the defendant’s breath, had asked if he had been drinking. He had “leaned a little backwards . . . [and] said no” and the interviewer, then thinking he had not been drinking, had sent him out. The defendant arrived at the Goldberg house about 12:45 or 1 P.M. He later told the police that he arrived before noon and left at exactly 3:45 P.M. The jury could have found, however, from the testimony of several other witnesses, that he left the house at about 3:05 P.M. Israel Goldberg, the murdered woman’s husband, telephoning from his place of business in Chelsea, spoke with his wife at about 2:20 P.M. Goldberg arrived home at about 3:50 P.M., found his wife’s body in the living room and telephoned the police. They arrived in a few minutes and found Goldberg excited, nervous and hysterical. Mrs. Goldberg had been strangled with one of her stockings; the disarray of her garments and the bodily exposure (with the later report of a microscopic examination and related testimony of Goldberg) tended to show rape. 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.

    Page *605

    Palm or fingerprints, later identified as the defendant’s, were, in due course, found on the mantel in the living room, on the mirror hanging above it, and on the vacuum cleaner. After his arrest, the defendant told the police that he cleaned several rooms, got all through with his work and left the rooms in order; also that he did not clean the mirror, that he “didn’t have anything to do” with it and he did not recall seeing a mantel.

    Children coming home from school about 3 P.M. and soon thereafter playing ball in the street saw the defendant on the street near the Goldberg house and saw Goldberg come home; they did not observe anyone else in the street near the house in the interval. Their opportunity for observation extended over a good part though not all of the time between the defendant’s departure and Goldberg’s return. A practical nurse employed in the house next to the Goldberg residence was watching the children in the street from about 3:25 P.M. until about 3:45 P.M. She saw no one around the Goldberg house other than the children. She saw Gloldberg come home.

    The defendant spent the night of March 11-12 in the apartment of Mrs. Dorothy Hunt, in Cambridge, drinking with friends. When he arrived Mrs. Hunt observed that “he had had something to drink.” She was then cooking supper; she has supper “between five and six.” The defendant had most recently been with Mrs. Hunt in late October, 1962. On March 11 he brought liquor and beer with him and went out twice in the evening to buy more liquor. Later, at a time placed by one witness as between 12 midnight and 1 A.M., William Cartwright, one of the companions of the evening, drove the defendant, another man, and Mrs. Hunt to Boston in Cartwright’s car intending to go to the defendant’s house at 175 Northhampton Street. They did not stop at the house. In Northhampton Street the defendant directed Cartwright to “slow down” and then to “go faster, they are still here.” Cartwright saw two men standing in front of the building that the defendant pointed out. Police officers were watching that building from

    Page *606

    11:30 P.M. on March 11, or midnight, to 5 or 5:30 A.M. on March 12. The defendant was with Mrs. Hunt on March 12, 1963, until arrested in the afternoon, going out with her and her daughter to an optometrist’s and to a coffee shop in the morning.

    The defendant told the police that he had $2 with him when he went to Belmont on March 11 and that he was paid $6.30 for his work at the Goldberg house. He had $3.20 with him when arrested. Goldberg had left bills (one in the amount of $10, five in the amount of $1) on the night table in the bedroom before leaving home in the morning, after having a conversation with his wife. This was for her use in paying the expected cleaning man. He had given his wife $7 on March 10 for some purchases; she had not spent it all. In the afternoon of March 11 her pocketbook was found open on top of a bureau with the wallet missing. The money was gone from the night table. The defendant on the evening of March 11 was seen with a ten, a five and some one dollar bills when he purchased whiskey. He made other purchases and expenditures between 3:05 P.M. on March 11 and the time of his arrest on March 12. The total of these was in the range of $15.

    This evidence was sufficient to take the case to the jury. (FN 5) Commonwealth v. Richmond, 207 Mass. 240 , 243-245, 246-247. Commonwealth v. Smith, 342 Mass. 180 , 182-184. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 . Commonwealth v. Connors, 345 Mass. 102 . See Commonwealth v. Bonomi, 335 Mass. 327, 356, and cases cited. “Reasonable and possible” inferences were enough. Commonwealth v. Merrick, 255 Mass. 510 , 514. 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


    (FN 5) The evidence as to blood stains and other stains was inconclusive. There was evidence of some blood or “blood-tinged fluid” on the right side of Goldberg’s mouth, some blood on one finger, and blood stains on the front of her blouse. There were two human blood stains on the back of the right sleeve of the defendant’s shirt and blood stains, “really old blood” in the left side pocket of his trousers, and semen stains with spermatozoa on the fly. The expert witness, however, could not tell the age of any of the stains.

    Page *607

    guilt. Evidence of consciousness of guilt, while not conclusive, may with other evidence be sufficient to prove guilt.

    Commonwealth v. Curry, 341 Mass. 50, 55, and cases cited. Commonwealth v. Swartz, 343 Mass. 709 , 713.

    This is not a case on which the guilt of the defendant is left to conjecture and surmise with no solid basis in fact.

    Comment by Leah Goldberg — January 29, 2007 @ 5:24 pm

  5. I hope you realize I meant conviction was upheld after appeal.

    Comment by Leah Goldberg — January 29, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

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