Fostering the Criminal Mind An Analysis of A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger

            During the early 1960s several women were strangled to death in areas in and around Boston, Massachusetts. There were a total of thirteen single women who were killed, many of them strangled with their nylon stockings and many were also sexually assaulted as well. The murders were assumed to be committed by either someone the women knew or someone they were comfortable allowing into their home as there were no signs of forced entry at any of the crime scenes. Albert DeSalvo later confessed to being what the police and public dubbed “The Boston Strangler.” In A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger, questions regarding the rape and murder of a woman named Bessie Goldberg are brought to light. On a fall day in Belmont, Massachusetts in 1963, Bessie Goldberg’s husband comes home to find his raped and murdered wife. Roy Smith was eventually convicted of this murder based on the fact that he had done some housekeeping work in the Goldberg household on the day of the murder. However, many people, including Sebastian Junger, believe that the Albert DeSalvo, a.k.a. the Boston Strangler, was responsible for the rape and murder of Bessie Goldberg. A Death in Belmont is written in such a way that one begins to believe that the events surrounding the death of Bessie Goldberg and the eventual capture and incarceration of the wrong man actually fostered the criminal mind of Albert DeSalvo and perhaps increased his confidence in his murderous actions.

            When Sebastian Junger was just one year old, his parents hired a young handyman by the name of Albert DeSalvo to build his mother a studio behind their home (Junger, 2006). Scarily, Junger’s mother befriended DeSalvo and he once tried to lure her into the basement without success (Junger, 2006). The primary point that Junger attempts to make in A Death in Belmont is that traditionally when the public thinks about serial killers they think about evil and demonic human beings. The public rarely stops to consider the fact that a murderer may be in their midst disguised as a hard working, nice young man. The fact that DeSalvo presented this type of persona allowed him to foster his murderous tendencies.

            However, when one examines the background of Albert DeSalvo is it much easier to believe that he had the potential to be the Boston Strangler. If these facts were not brought to light many people would still be unable to believe that DeSalvo was capable of rape and strangulation. DeSalvo was raised in a violent home in a poor neighborhood (Grossman, 2006). At the same time he had the good fortune to be a handsome and charming young man. This outward appearance and personality allowed him to talk his way into women’s homes so he could rape and strangle them (Grossman, 2006). In addition, DeSalvo was smart enough to cover his tracks after he committed the crime so he would not be caught (Grossman, 2006). During the 1960s, DNA evidence was not yet discovered so it was remarkably easy for DeSalvo to get away with his crimes. This increased his level of confidence and helped foster his desire to continue to sweet talk his way into unsuspecting women’s homes so he could rape and strangle them.

            The death of 62-year old Bessie Goldberg was never tied to the Boston Strangler despite the similarities surrounding her death as compared with his other victims and the fact that her rape and murder occurred during the Boston Strangler’s crime spree (Junger, 2006). Instead, Roy Smith, the African American housekeeper hired by the Goldberg’s was captured, received a guilty verdict and was sent to prison (Junger, 2006). When the spotlight was on Roy Smith for the murder of Bessie Goldberg, Albert DeSalvo predictably received a great boost of confidence in his ability to cover up his crimes. When Roy Smith was put in prison for the murder of Bessie Goldberg the police department as well as the public was satisfied with the outcome and did not attempt to look any further for a killer. Therefore, DeSalvo was able to continue his murdering spree because no one even suspected him of the crime.

            Several of the Boston Strangler’s victims were posed after their murder and some had their underwear knotted around their neck like a decorative bow (Grossman, 2006). This bold act of showmanship also speaks to the fostering of the criminal mind in A Death in Belmont. When a murderer is confident enough to stick around after the crime has been committed in order to leave his own mark it shows the level of confidence he has in his ability to get away with his crimes. Coupled with his ability to convince women to allow him into their homes, DeSalvo was a master at covering his tracks and leaving his own mark on the bodies in order to boast about his ability to get away with his crimes.

DeSalvo is the police department’s worst fear because he did not present himself in a threatening manner so no one in the suburb of Belmont would ever have suspected him of being the Boston Strangler. This allowed DeSalvo to come into close contact with his potential victims because he seemed like a safe person (Junger, 2006). The Boston Strangler’s crimes occurred in suburbs outside of Boston and during the 1960s these suburbs seemed like safe places to live and raise a family (Junger, 2006). This attitude allowed the criminal mind of Albert DeSalvo to continue to progress because he was able to fit into the lives of suburban families by becoming a trustworthy and charming handyman in their homes. In this way, Albert DeSalvo was able to come and go in people’s homes which built his confidence as well because he knew that if he chose a victim that knew him and liked him he would be able to easily gain entry into the home to rape and murder her. The illusion of safety that was created in suburban areas during the 1960s further boosted DeSalvo’s confidence and fostered his desire to find new victims.

Suspicion of outsiders also fueled DeSalvo’s criminal mind and his continued crime spree (Junger, 2006). Belmont was a quiet Massachusetts suburb that was separate from issues such as poverty and bad neighborhoods. As a result, outsiders were quickly noticed and not usually tolerated. The fact that Roy Smith was an African American automatically made him an outsider in Belmont and also led to the public opinion that he was the murderer of Bessie Goldberg. Everyone quickly accepted that Smith was guilty of the crime based on his outsider status (Junger, 2006). Again, this increased the confidence of the true killer because he knew that he did fit into Belmont as a handyman that was well known and well liked by the citizens of the town. DeSalvo relied on his charming personality to gain the trust of the people he worked for which is precisely the type of personality necessary to gain entry into women’s homes in order to rape and murder them. When one fits in well in a particular community the way that DeSalvo did they are able to remove the spotlight from themselves when a crime is committed but they are also able to continue to commit similar crimes based on that lack of suspicion.

Despite the lack of concrete evidence linking Albert DeSalvo to the Boston Strangler’s crimes he did confess and was imprisoned based on that confession. To this day there is no way to prove without a doubt that Albert DeSalvo did in fact kill Bessie Goldberg. Sebastian Junger’s ability to leave the reader with a sense of “what if” is what makes A Death in Belmont so captivating with regards to the fostering of the criminal mind. The questions left unanswered upon completing the book are the most compelling pieces of evidence that point to the ability of murderers to get away with their crimes. If Albert DeSalvo truly did kill Bessie Goldberg was he able to continue his murdering spree because his confidence got a big boost when he so obviously got away with a terrible crime? Did the fact that DeSalvo integrated himself into the homes and communities of suburban families further increase his confidence because he knew he could easily gain entry into potential victim’s homes? In the end, Albert DeSalvo did not have the typical persona one associates with a serial killer. Was this ultimately what fostered his criminal mind and motivated him to rape and strangle thirteen women?

Grossman, Lev. “A Murderer in the Home.” Time Magazine 3 April 2006.

Junger, Sebastian. A Death in Belmont. New York: W.W. Norton Publishers, 2006.