I Was Suspected of Murder
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.