There is a photograph in the frontispiece of author Sebastian Junger’s A Death in Belmont. There are four people in the photo taken in 1963. In the foreground is one-year-old Sebastian, looking right into the camera. Behind him and looking down at her son is Ellen Junger. Behind her are Floyd Wiggins and Albert DeSalvo, two of the three-man crew that built an artist’s studio addition to the Junger residence in Belmont, MA.
The day before the photo was taken, Bessie Goldberg, a neighbor of the Junger family, was found murdered in her home.
Later, an African-American man named Roy Smith was arrested and found guilty of her murder. Also, DeSalvo confessed to being the “Boston Strangler,” the suspected serial killer who had been preying upon women in the Boston area. The strangler was known to have killed 13 women. He left not a trace of evidence behind.
The photograph has haunted Junger throughout his childhood and into his adulthood, where he has achieved significant success as a best-selling author, most notably of The Perfect Storm and Fire, a collection of his magazine articles from his travels throughout the U.S. and worldwide. He is also as an award-winning journalist for his major international news stories from Afghanistan, Kosovo, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The photo is a constant reminder that the confessed “Boston Strangler” was working in the Junger home, a mile from the home where Goldberg was murdered the day that the alleged killer Smith had been sent by a cleaning service to clean the Goldberg home.
During a question-and-answer session following his recent talk and reading, sponsored by the R.J. Julia Booksellers at the Scranton Library, Junger said he wrote the book “to get closer to the truth.” Was Smith innocent of the Goldberg murder? Was Goldberg another victim of the Boston Strangler? Was DeSalvo actually the Boston Strangler, or—since he was already charged with other crimes—just looking to make a million or so in royalties from book and movie deals if he admitted to the crimes and claimed insanity?
“It’s an amazing photo,” said Junger, noting it was taken the day after the Goldberg murder and includes a dapper-looking DeSalvo with his dark hair greased up in a pompadour. However, it is DeSalvo’s “outspread hand” placed across his stomach that becomes the focus in the center of the photograph, “as if it were the true subject around which the rest of us have been arranged,” Junger writes in chapter one.
Junger, a native New Englander and graduate of Wesleyan University, wrote A Death in Belmont with the hope of getting to the truth, he said. Also, he noted that “authors fear anonymity.” And once they rid themselves of anonymity, they next fear of being pigeonholed. Therefore, he wanted to write about something that was different than The Perfect Storm and his war reportage; otherwise, he said a writer “stops growing.”
Researching and writing about a 40-year-old murder was “about as different a topic I could think of,” Junger said. The book spans issues as diverse as racism, class division, terror, crime, investigation, punishment and pardon.
A Death in Belmont is a story about three people: Bessie Goldberg, Albert DeSalvo, and Roy Smith. It is also a story about what Junger learned about the justice system. “The same fact can have completely opposite meaning depending upon how you discuss it,” Junger told his audience of approximately 300.
“I went through a terrible time thinking that Roy’s guilty, but then I realized that many things can have two different meanings.” For example, he noted Smith’s calmness when he left the Goldberg home could indicate he was innocent. Or, from a prosecutor’s perspective, it could indicate he was a cold-blooded killer.
The book is also a story about Junger’s mother’s encounter with DeSalvo. She was a 34-year-old young mother and artist. He was among the three-man crew that built the studio addition to the house. Junger said he interviewed his mother about the time the alleged Boston Strangler did work on the family house. One day DeSalvo showed up alone and unannounced.
Ellen Junger recalled:
“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.”
DeSalvo said there was something wrong with the washing machine. DeSalvo had been in the house only a few minutes and the washing machine wasn’t on. Ellen Junger told DeSalvo she was busy and she closed and bolted the basement door.
There is also a Connecticut connection to DeSalvo. During the early ’60s a man fitting DeSalvo’s description had raped dozens of women in New England, including four women one morning in the Hartford-New Haven area.
As Junger writes in his book, “In almost every case a dark-haired man wearing green cotton work pants had broken into a woman’s home, tied her to a bed, and then raped her. None of the women were killed. Because of his clothes the rapist was known in Connecticut as the ‘Green Man.’ Women who were shown the teletype photograph of DeSalvo said they were absolutely sure that he was the man who had attacked them.”
Following Junger’s talk, Phillip Underworth of East Hartford told the author that in the summer of 1963, his sister-in-law went to the door and a man fitting the description of the Green Man—that the police had been issuing warnings about—was standing there. She closed the door and called police.
Carylann Balskas, also of East Hartford, told Junger that in 1963 when she was expecting the third of her six children, she was looking out the window of her home while she was doing the dishes and saw that a man, similar to the description of the Green Man, had opened her fence and was walking through her yard. Her dog heard the fence open and “howled like a wolf,” she said. This scared off the man. She learned later that the man had gone next door to her neighbor and asked to read her gas meter.
“She said, ‘We don’t have gas; we have oil.’”
When Junger signed Balskas’ copy of his book, he wrote: “I’m glad your dog barked.”
In introducing Junger and his book, R. J. Julia owner Roxanne Coady described Junger as “a great storyteller. He explores the kind of complexities that are in the world.” She praised Junger for being the kind of journalist that is important for the country to have.
Coady suggested that people read A Death in Belmont with other family members or friends, so that readers can engage in a discourse as to whether they believe the innocence or guilt of Roy Smith and Albert DeSalvo.
During the book signing, one reader acknowledged that Junger raises a lot of questions about guilt and innocence in A Death in Belmont, and asked him what he believed now that he had researched and written the book. Junger said he still didn’t know if Smith was innocent and if DeSalvo was truly the Boston Strangler.