From Yankee Magazine January 1978
Like the Old Harbor town itself, some of us in Marblehead, Massachusetts, have for twenty-eight years had a grisly horror on our hands. Saturday night of Thanksgiving weekend in 1950, as a savage nor’easter battered the Massachusetts coast, spinster Beryl Atherton was strangled to death in her own kitchen, her throat then slashed open in the sign of the cross. From the first, police were without a trace of murderer or motive. I was a newcomer at the time — and among the earliest of suspects.
The victim had lived alone in a rundown clapboard cottage at 57 Sewell Street, in the Old Town. She was forty-seven, tall, painfully thin, and with no close friends, known enemies, or near relatives, her only companion a timid white Spitz. Her clergyman father, who once shared the small house with her, was now several years dead. She entertained no one, corresponded with no one, and spent much of her meager salary at beauty parlors and movies. For twenty-five years she had taught in Marblehead’s elementary schools.
As winds grew to storm force on the afternoon of Saturday, November 25, Miss Atherton drove in her secondhand car to the adjacent town of Salem and took her fur coat out of storage. Back in Marblehead and wearing the coat, she stopped for a Boston Traveler and several food purchases, then returned through lashing rain to the little house perched where Sewell Street, mounting a rocky hillside, bends almost back upon itself. She left her handbag in the dining room, and food packages and Traveler in the kitchen, and took the dog Esky for a quick airing. At about six, a boy delivering papers in the neighborhood saw her, still in the fur coat, emptying trash at the back door. Minutes later, in a change of clothing and seemingly alone, she took a long carving knife and began to cut up chunks of meat for Esky’s supper.
Suddenly another presence materialized, and terror struck. Esky was driven from the kitchen with a vicious kick, and his frail owner was locked in a death grip that crushed three of her ribs and forced the feebly raised knife down across her shoulder and chest. As strong hands tightened round the thin neck, the body slumped to the floor. Then, with a second, smaller knife, the killer slashed, criss-cross, at the now lifeless throat. He wiped both blades clean, snapped the first into pieces, returned the second knife and handle of the first to their proper drawer, and vanished.
On Sunday morning, Marbleheaders awoke to an after-storm calm and a tangle of power lines and tree limbs. Busy with their own damage and debris, Sewell Street neighbors did not stop to investigate the stillness at Number 57. In an upstairs bedroom cringed a small dog, his rib cage staved in. Downstairs the body of his mistress lay mutilated within a few feet of the unlatched back door.
It was not until 8:00 A.M. Monday that a milkman found that door open, peered inside, and rushed in horror to summon police. Inspector Clemmons Rodgers, a large, unexcitable department veteran, never forgot that grim spectacle. Scattered about were pages of Saturday’s Boston Traveler, an ornament from an overhead light cord, a broken necklace. Walls and ceiling were splattered with blood. The body, segments of a knife blade lying on it and beside it, sprawled grotesquely on the floor, throat open from ear to ear and chin to breastbone. “It was,” the inspector told me as recently as last year, “the most gruesome sight I ever saw.”
An hour after the milkman’s grim discovery, I left the office of a local physician and reported in late to my high school classes in the next town of Swampscott, where I was a newly hired teacher. Stitches and adhesive held together a jagged cut across my cheek. The morning went calmly enough until the final period, when two serious-eyed men in topcoats stood at my open classroom door and beckoned. Out in the silent corridor, once I had closed the door behind me, they flashed identification cards and badges: state police detectives, both of them. They wanted to know how well I had known Beryl Atherton.
“The Marblehead woman who was murdered? I didn’t know her at all.”
‘You were in an evening class with her this fall, at Boston University,” said the elder, somewhat taller of the two. “You both signed the same attendance sheet opening night,” “That’s possible,” I said. “I switched right after that to another course. I couldn’t say who was in the first. There were sixty at least.” Both detectives were nodding and rocking slightly on their heels. The senior man looked at the patch on my face.
“You left a raincoat at the cleaner’s first thing this morning. It had stains on it. Blood from that cut maybe? How’d you get hurt?”
I said I had driven off the shoulder of Route 114 in Sunday night’s fog, on my way from Andover to Swampscott, crumpling a fender on an old stone wall and striking my head against the windshield post. He asked how long I’d been at Andover. I told him I stopped in there late Sunday to see friends, after Thanksgiving weekend in Worcester at my mother’s. The shorter detective wrote in a pocket notebook as I answered questions about how my Andover friends and my mother could be reached. I said I hoped they would not bother my mother unless they had to, that she was alone and not in the best of health.
“Look,” said the larger man. “You’re a single guy, right? And a teacher…like Miss Atherton? You’re a good bit younger, sure, but still maybe could’ve been friendly. You were with her in that class – and there’s the coat and the cut on the face, too. Your school principal can’t tell us much, except you’ve been teaching out of state and your references are good. We may just have to talk with your mother…and maybe go a lot further. Who’s the doc, by the way, who stitched up your face? And how about the car — parked, is it, where we can get a look at it?” I gave him the information, with an effort to steady my voice. Then he motioned with the back of his hand toward the classroom, where young voices had begun to rise.
“Okay. You can go back in there. But stay close this afternoon, at the place where you’re rooming. We’ll get back to you.”
In my attic bed-sitting room that afternoon, I kept imagining a phone call and point-blank dismissal from the superintendent of schools, even an outraged massing in the street below by citizens of Swampscott and Marblehead. New as I was, I could think of no one to turn to for advice or for the name of a lawyer. Desperately, too, I needed to know if the police were checking with my mother; yet I dared not alarm her by phoning if perhaps they were not. So there I sat, caught up in conflicts I could do nothing about.
It was nearly five when a doorbell rang and my landlady showed the two detectives up to my room. Ten minutes later I was at the front door, breathing more easily and showing them out. They had examined the car and talked with the doctor. I could forget the whole thing, they said. No need now to bother my mother or anyone else. They were sorry they had even had to bother me. Relief was great…until I went out and came back with newspapers.
The Atherton murder was headlined everywhere, in all its gory detail. State and local police, conducting their separate and joint investigations, were without a single valid clue. House and yard so far had yielded no helpful fingerprints or footprints. Nothing at all had been taken; no door or window showed signs of having been forced. All bloodstains matched the victim’s own Type B. Miss Atherton had not been sexually attacked, and nobody in her present or past appeared to have any reason to kill her. Though bloodstained articles from cleaning establishments and trash collections had led to a number of unnamed suspects, no one so far was charged with the crime. Except for the utter impossibility of it, the lone woman might have strangled and then lacerated herself. Where no one appeared guilty, anyone, of course, could be.
None of the papers mentioned that the investigation had reached into a classroom at Swampscott High School. That, I supposed, was part of a grand design. No doubt the police were playing cat and mouse with those they had questioned.
Tuesday I got as far as the door of the principal’s office, intending to find out if the detectives on Monday had given him the real reason for their visit. But I walked away again. If they had not told him, my inquiring would arouse suspicion. If they had, my best bet was a show of unconcerned innocence.
I had already begun to sense accusation in the eyes of students and teachers, and to wonder if passing comments on my patched-up face were mere ruses to disclose my guilt. Wednesday afternoon I watched uneasily as an attendant at the dry cleaner’s left his counter to fetch my raincoat; I was sure he was staring back at me from behind the racks of hanging garments. At the near-empty comer drugstore that same evening, a young girl clerk remarked she’d never seen anybody buy so many papers at one time. “You must like reading about the murder.” Her smile struck me as the kind that accompanies an insinuation.
Residents of both towns had taken to bolting previously unlocked doors and not venturing out at night unless they had to. Evening business — at movies, drugstores, bowling alleys — was at a standstill. In Marblehead, women applied for and received gun permits, and a distraught chief of police canceled all leaves and put his entire force on twenty-four-hour alert. Thursday afternoon, officers stationed at several Old Town vantage points kept the Atherton funeral under tightest scrutiny.
That evening, I telephoned Worcester. I had heard nothing all week from my mother; apparently she had not been bothered. Feeling, though, that official eyes were on me as I came and went about Swampscott, I did not want to be shadowed sixty miles by car and cause a stake-out at her house as well. I told her, therefore, that I had work to do, that I was sorry I could not spend this weekend with her as I had the last.
I lugged a briefcase full of English compositions to my room after school on Friday, and until late that night and for most of Saturday blue-penciled account after account of the horror in the neighboring town. One young lady had read into the Atherton family history a father’s unnatural domination and the jealousy of a secret lover who murdered his love-torn Beryl to break the dead clergyman’s preternatural hold. Yet nowhere did I find a single hint that the teacher correcting these papers could himself be the killer who slashed in the sign of the cross.
Within three months pulse rates in the two towns had returned to near normal. I had by then made my own home in Marblehead, on one of its picturesque harborside streets. In time I married, lived on there after I left the Swampscott schools to be a teacher and dean at a nearby college, and never again heard directly about my few hours as a murder suspect. Quite obviously, since they never spoke of it, neither my mother nor the friends in Andover had ever been questioned. My wife and the few close friends to whom I sometimes mention the ugly predicament seldom respond with more than smiles and words of sympathy or mild amusement. Still in my own mind, however, lingers a dark shadow that does not go away.
The neighbor I talk with across a picket fence, or a visitor sharing the view from our living room, may seem suddenly to shudder, as if recalling a rumor from long ago. Or the friendly cop at a downtown coffee counter will pause in our conversation, perhaps remembering my name in some mothballed department file. True, my former Swampscott principal, whom I came to know before his death as a man who wanted to think ill of nobody, always appeared to believe the two detectives had been checking on my accident with the car. But wouldn’t he have linked their visit and the crime, and have wondered at moments if he had a murderer on the faculty of his suburban high school? Is there, too, on fire-lit evenings when fall nor’easters drive salt spray against our windows, a question in my wife’s eyes she cannot bring herself to ask?
On Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend in 1976, again with rain falling and winds rising, I paid a late afternoon call on Inspector Clem Rodgers at his home in Marblehead. Though over the years we had developed a first-name acquaintanceship without once mentioning Beryl Atherton, I supposed that he, too, had thoughts about my involvement in the case. Today, as always, he greeted me cordially, then stared hard when I said I hoped to do an article on the town’s only murder in more than fifty years. Did I realize, he asked, that the crime had occurred precisely twenty-six years ago tonight, almost within the hour? I nodded. Would he rather not talk about it? After a moment he shook his head. What was it I wished to know?
Though long retired from active duty, the inspector was clearly moved as he gave his answers. He told of the bloody shambles he encountered in the Atherton kitchen that gray Monday and the long dragnet that went out. There were state and local interrogations of sneak thieves and similar offenders, patients furloughed or recently discharged from mental hospitals, pupils and teachers then or formerly in the schools, anyone ever mentioned in the victim’s drab little diary. He was sure that police had at some point interviewed the actual killer. With no statute of limitations on murder, a continuing watch had been kept on certain persons, several of them well known in town, who without new evidence could not in decency be questioned further.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “We never even came close.” He ground a large fist into his open palm. “My God, how can anyone do a thing like that and live with it!”
I asked if over the years he had formed a theory about the person who had. Only, he answered slowly, that it almost had to be someone who knew the usually unlocked house, who would return two knives to their proper drawer — someone unbalanced enough to strike that way, clever enough to hide all evidence, and callous enough to bear the memory. The cross-like cutting of the throat, he was sure, had no significance except as a crazed gesture to make sure the victim, already dead from strangulation, would never rise to talk again. It was no more rational than the breaking and scattering of the single blade.
He paused, and I asked if the killer might have been a resident of Marblehead. He thought so, yes. Could he or she still be living? The inspector would not say, though his heavy eyebrows came together in a frown. I then remarked that he no doubt recalled that I had once been interrogated in the case.
The eyebrows shot up. Was I serious? Who was it that had talked with me? Not his men, or he’d remember. I explained about the state detectives and all that had passed between us. Wasn’t I now perhaps one of those townspeople who could not, “in decency,” be questioned further? Again he shook his head, smiling this time. The state police, he said, since I had no record, would have lost interest when they’d seen the car and the doctor and got a lab report on my coat. He hoped I had not dwelt morbidly on this thing. I said that, other than at first and at some moments later, I had not. His handshake, when after a few more questions I thanked him and left, was warm and reassuring.
From the wet porch I saw that my wife had driven up and was waiting, windshield wipers clicking. She moved over as I slid in behind the wheel. “Find out anything helpful?’ she asked. I said I’d tell her all about it later. Would she mind right now our driving down for one more look at the old Atherton place? Not really, she said. “Tonight, I somehow thought you’d want to.”
The bell high in Abbot Hall’s rain-shrouded tower had pealed a muffled six as we rounded the rise on Sewell Street and stopped, motor idling, at 57. There it was, crowded close to the narrow sidewalk by the steep slope at the back. I looked at my watch in the dashboard light; right about now, the murderer would have struck. For a long moment I listened, imagining a deathly shriek, a white dog cringing, a long knife falling from-a lifeless hand. All I heard, though, was wind and rain; all I saw was a snug little cottage, apparently untroubled now by the nightmare in its past. With new owners, old clapboards had given way to trim shingles, overgrowth in the yard to tidy shrubs. Lamps glowed at curtained windows.
Few people can be left in Marblehead who think much about Beryl Atherton anymore. Time has claimed many of the suspects, Inspector Rodgers told me – though with no deathbed confessions, despite watchers who sometimes strained to catch a final whisper of the ghastly truth. Only a small remnant of us would still be here whose lives once fell under the darkness of suspicion. In April of last year, time also claimed the good Clem Rodgers, who surely knew more about the killing than any other person alive, except perhaps that one whose guilt has cast so long a shadow. Yet when November brings the first cold breath of winter, and newspapers once again recount the deepening mystery, old-time ‘Headers, brows knit like the conscience of the town, allow as how someone among them could tell a heap about the murder had he or she a mind to. They say, too, police keep watch against a killer’s revisit to the scene.
I was startled by my wife’s hand upon my arm. “Could we go home now?’ she asked.
“Yes,” I said. But I looked back through the slanting downpour as we inched on up the hill. After so many years, I still did not feel certain that a car of mine could stop there unobserved.