April 17, 2006
Junger book revisits Boston Strangler in new book
By Mark Egan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sebastian Junger's new book begins
with a family album snapshot of the best-selling author of "The
Perfect Storm" sitting on his mother's lap as a baby.
In the background are two workers posing with them after
renovating the family home. One of them is a handsome young man
who became known as the Boston Strangler.
The image prompted Junger to write "A Death in Belmont."
"I decided to find out more," Junger said in an interview
about his book, which revisits a time when women in Boston were
terrified by the Boston Strangler murders of 1962-1964.
But it was a seemingly unconnected murder which Junger
focused on. On March 11, 1963, elderly Bessie Goldberg was
raped and strangled in her house in Junger's hometown, Belmont,
Massachusetts. Roy Smith, a black man from Mississippi who
cleaned Goldberg's home that day, was convicted of the brutal
Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed and was convicted of
raping and killing 13 women in the Boston Strangler murders,
was working alone at the nearby Junger home. DeSalvo, who never
admitted to the Goldberg murder, subsequently retracted his
confessions and was murdered in prison in 1973.
In the book, Junger pieces together the evidence and leaves
the reader with a picture that suggests that DeSalvo was more
likely Goldberg's murderer than Smith.
"It was the ultimate journalistic challenge to write about
Belmont," said Junger, who made his name as a war reporter in
such places as Bosnia and Afghanistan. "Belmont is the most
placid, quiet, safe, protected little enclave. I thought, if I
can write compellingly about Belmont, then I've earned my
stripes as a journalist and as a writer."
"MUCH MORE COMPLEX"
At first Junger thought his book would consist of "digging
up a 40-year-old case and showing that the guy didn't do it and
someone else did. But pretty quickly I realized the story was
much more complex than the tidy form it took in my family."
Instead, the book examines the terror in Boston during the
stranglings and the type of justice facing a Mississippi black
man in the early 1960s. It was a time of national upheaval as
America mourned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
while a jury mulled Smith's fate,
Early reviews of the book are positive. Kirkus Reviews
called the book "a meticulously researched evocation of a time
of terror, wrapped around a chilling, personal footnote."
But ahead of the its publication this week by W.W. Norton,
the victim's daughter has taken umbrage.
Leah Goldberg Scheuerman wrote on BarnesandNoble.com that
key facts reported in the book -- such as the time Smith
arrived at the house and, crucially, the time he left as well
details about the physical evidence at the crime scene -- are
incorrect. She still believes Smith murdered her mother.
Junger defends the book's integrity, saying his manuscript
was submitted to both the defense and prosecution attorneys on
the original case for factchecking before being sent to an
independent factchecker, which he paid for himself.
"No one person upon reading all the material I gave them
thought Smith was guilty. I could not find anyone who thought
that," Junger said. "In fact one prosecutor ... said he doubted
he could even arrest the guy based on the evidence they had."
"But I can't prove it, and there is some substantial doubt
in my mind that he actually may have done it. I don't think
anyone can prove one way or another who killed who."
Smith died of cancer in 1976 after his sentence was
commuted for good behavior and amid doubts about his guilt,
although he was too sick to leave prison before his death.
Junger spent three years writing and researching "A Death
in Belmont." And for someone who loves being a war reporter,
that meant he was stuck at home as his country went to war with
Iraq and continued fighting in Afghanistan.
"ON THE BENCH"
"I was forced to sit on the sidelines and watch my country
enter an incredibly turbulent, controversial era which sees us
in two foreign wars, and I couldn't participate," he said.
"I felt like I had come to play in the championship and I
was on the bench with a broken leg."
Once Junger is done promoting his book, he plans to travel
overseas for more war reporting. And while he does not know yet
where he will go, he says Iraq is just too dangerous.
At 44, Junger appears to have it all. His 1997 book "The
Perfect Storm" about a fishing boat caught in a terrible storm
sold millions of copies and was made into a movie starring
George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. He travels on assignments for
Vanity Fair magazine and even co-owns a trendy Manhattan bar
popular with writers, journalists and photographers.
Junger has a reputation as a macho man. In his 20s he
earned his living swinging on a harness 90-feet above the
ground with a running chainsaw in his hand chopping down trees
before he gashed his leg with his chainsaw.
But just recently married, he's sounding a little less
roughneck. Pressed further on which hellhole he might report on
when he hits the road again in September, he says with a smile,
"All of this is subject to the veto or approval of my wife."
And what remaining ambitions are left for a man who has
already had more adventures than most people?
"I'd like to start a family," he said, rubbing his hand on
the heavy stubble on his chin. "It seems like the ultimate
experience and I haven't done it."