I Was Suspected of Murder | Yankee Classic Article
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.