Atop A Stairway In The Sky

Just this side of heaven, atop a stairway in the sky,

Is where the sun shines every day, and there’s no need to cry.

A letter came from there today, with words to ease my heart;

You told me how you’re getting on, now that we’re apart.

You told me you were happy, your time you knew you’d had;

And that you wanted me to know that I needn’t feel so sad.

To your every whim, you said, an angel now attends,

And just because you’re not here with me doesn’t mean we’re not still friends.

You said you saw the flowers I left, and laughed when I lost the card;

But the writing would have run anyway, as it was raining hard.

You mentioned the film we always watched every Saturday night,

And that you danced to our song in the moon’s shimmering light.

You said that when I dreamed of you, it was your way of telling me

That you were having the time of your life and were happy as could be.

I read your words. I laughed. I cried. And then I sighed alack!

For never could I find the stairway, to send you a letter back.

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Roland Ratzenberger: The Tragedy Formula 1 Forgot

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Roland Ratzenberger – the driver the world forgot.

There is a grave in Morumbi cemetery in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The gravestone is no different to the others there. A brass plaque on a circular lawn, surrounded by other identical brass plaques on identical circular lawns. A steady stream of visitors pass by the grave to pay their respects. They stop to read the inscription:

Ayrton Senna da Silva

21 – 03 -1960  –  01- 05- 1994

Nada pode me seaparar

Do amor de Deus

Occasionally, the array of flowers, flags, tributes and mementos begin to overflow the small circular lawn. They are then gathered up by the cemetery staff and passed on to the family. It is a serenely discreet final resting place for a man, who was to me, the greatest racing driver of all time.

There is a grave in Maxglan cemetery in Salzburg, Austria. The gravestone stands out from the others there. Charcoal-grey marble and bearing a detailed inscription complete with a photograph. A miniature racing helmet sits atop. But there is no steady stream of visitors. The cemetery staff do not have to trouble themselves to remove the vast array of tributes. No less serene than Ayrton Senna da Silva’s grave in Sao Paolo, this is the final resting place of Roland Ratzenberger, a Formula 1 novice who made his debut just a few weeks before his death.

Roland Ratzenberger was killed during qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, on 30 April, 1994 – 22 years ago today. His death formed part of the saddest – and strangest – weekends in Formula 1 history. The previous day, Brazilian driver Rubens Barrichello crashed during practice and was lucky to escape with his life. Despite swallowing his tongue, marshals and medics were able to get to him in time. He was taken to hospital suffering from concussion and a broken nose.

When Ratzenberger died, Ayrton Senna was watching the lap on the live feed back at the pits. On seeing the crash, he took off his helmet and peered at the screen. He knew that the crash had happened at around 320 kph. At that speed, he knew Ratzenberger was in serious trouble. Senna watched as the medics pulled him from the car and tried to resuscitate him. He watched until it became obvious that their efforts were in vain, and then he could watch no more.

Roland Ratzenberger was the first Formula 1 racing driver to be killed in twelve years. The shockwave was palpable and there followed an outpouring of grief and tributes.

The next day – race day – Ayrton Senna took to his Williams. In the cockpit alongside him was an Austrian flag. He planned to wave it in tribute to Ratzenberger as he crossed the line at the end of the race. Seven laps in, Senna’s car left the racing line at 310 kph and crashed into an unprotected concrete wall. As the car rebounded off the wall and came to an agonising stop, Senna’s head slumped to the side. A few seconds later, his head lifted momentarily and then fell once more. He did not move again. Medics rushed to the scene. He was airlifted to Bologna hospital where, after several hours, the news broke. Three times Formula 1 world champion Ayrton Senna was dead.

As the news reverberated around the newsrooms and flashed up on myriad TV screens, the racing world – and to a large extent the wider world – became caught up in its shock and grief forgot about Roland Ratzenberger. There are many who never remembered.

There is a grave in Maxglan cemetery in Salzburg, Austria. It is the final resting place of Roland Ratznberger, a racing driver who never reached the pinnacle of the sport he loved, but whose life was no less valued. It’s tragic that the world forgot.

Roland Ratzenberger

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Pretoria Pit

I grew up in Leigh, a small mining town nestled snugly within the bosom of the Red Rose County of Lancashire. Both of my granddad’s and great-granddad’s were miners; my dad probably would have been too, were it not for my granddad insisting that he didn’t want that for his son. My dad left school at fourteen and got an apprenticeship at an engineering works. I guess you could say he was one of the lucky ones.

Nevertheless, growing up, mining was all around me. I would watch the miners going to and from work, and I could see the winding gear from the nearby Parsonage Colliery from my bedroom window. I heard the stories too, of the collapses and disasters, and of those men and boys who went to work and never came home. Then there were those whose lives the pit took slowly. Men like my granddad, who died from silicosis, caused by inhaling coal dust for decade upon decade. He died at home, meaning there had to be an autopsy. It was damning. The pathologist wrote in his report that my granddad didn’t have lungs, he “had two lumps of solid coal dust where his lungs once were”.

Hulton Bank Colliery was located in Westhoughton, a few miles away from my hometown. Number 3 pit at the colliery was known as Pretoria Pit. The pit employed 2,500 men and boys, all of them local, many of them from the same families. On December 21, 1910, 900 men and boys clocked on for the early shift, leaving the rest of the community either slumbering away, or finalising their Christmas preparations.The miners would split up to work the five coal seams: Trencherbone, Plodder, Yard, Three-Quarters and Arley. 349 of the men went to work the Plodder seam.

Unbeknownst to those clocking on that morning, there was already a dangerous build-up of flammable gas within the mine. It had begun the previous day, when a 20-yard section of the roof had collapsed further along in the mine, effectively serving to enclose the space in which the men would be working. It should have been removed by the time the early shift clocked on, but it wasn’t. The results were catastrophic.

At 7:50 a.m. a faulty lamp ignited the gas at the Plodder seam. The explosion ripped through the space, engulfing the men in flames and a deadly cloud of hot coal dust, carbon monoxide and methane gas. Of the 349 men who clocked on that day, 344 were killed.

Many families lost multiple loved ones, but by far the worst affected family was the Tyldesley’s. Mrs Miriam Tyldesley lost four sons, two brothers and her husband.

This poem was inspired by the diary of Ben Byers, whose brother, Fountain Byers, was brought out of the mine alive; he succumbed to his injuries a short time later.

Pretoria Pit

 

I can see it as clearly as I saw it then.

That hideous black day in 1910,

When the fates saw fit for our souls to plunder

And tear hundreds of families completely asunder.

I was fourteen-years-old and worked in the mill,

When the news came in and the world stood still.

I strained my ears, and hoped I’d misheard

That a terrible tragedy had occurred,

Further down yonder at the Pretoria Pit,

And I was told I could leave if I saw fit.

I had three brothers that worked down that mine,

Mum always worried, but they said they’d be fine.

The pit gives a living, and the pit destroys

And takes the best of our men and boys.

A friend of mine’s dad worked down there too,

We changed our work clothes and then we two

Ran like the wind through the drizzling rain,

Trying hard our composures to maintain.

We hoped against hope that all would be well

And troubling thoughts we fought to dispel.

Rounding the corner we came on the scene.

The air was thick and the smell was keen.

Women with eyes filled with fear and hurt,

Children, sobbing and clinging to their mothers’ skirt.

The men folk were stoic, but you could tell they knew

That there was very little anyone could do,

Save some semblance of hope to try and derive

That at least one or two would be brought out alive.

And so we waited, in the drizzling rain,

Wondering if we’d see our loved ones again.

By four o’clock it was almost dark.

I was cold and wet, so I walked through the park,

Back towards home to my mum and dad,

To see if any news they’d had.

As I stepped through the door I heard sobbing cries,

And my dad came to greet me with dread in his eyes.

There, by the fire my brother George sits,

Poisoned gas had shot his lungs to bits.

A cry from the parlour, so loud the devil awoke.

My other brother just died…and mum’s heart just broke.

My third brother was one of the few to survive;

He was still at the pit, rescuing both the dead and alive.

I once told my Dad, “You know, our George proclaims

That one day that pit’s going to go up in flames.”

My brother was laid to rest on Christmas Day;

What a heavy price for coal we pay!

His wife now a widow, and his newborn child,

Never knowing her dad, so gentle and mild.

When my brother to Saint Peter his name does tell,

He’ll be told, “Come on in and rest lad. You worked and died in hell”

○Eleanor Parks 2016

Originally published in Are You There, Dad? by *Rona Lee Parks and Neville Winter.

*Rona Lee Parks is my poetry pseudonym.

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Take My Hand

This poem was inspired by a friend who was going through an incredibly rough time. I felt impotent, helpless to assist. Short of waving a magic wand to make all her difficulties disappear, I didn’t know what to do to help my friend, and as disconsolate as she was, I too felt heartbroken. One particularly dark evening, I asked her what I could do to help. “Just be here and hold my hand” was her reply.

It got me thinking. Sometimes we don’t need someone to do anything. We just need them to take us by the hand and make us feel that we’re not alone in whatever battle it is we’re fighting. I believe that holding someone’s hand is underrated. It’s a powerful form of human contact that immediately says, “It’s OK. I’m here.”

When you feel the night will never end,

Take my hand…it will

When you feel the sun won’t rise again,

Take my hand…it will

When you feel you must bear your pain alone,

Take my hand…you don’t

When you feel your heart will break in two,

Take my hand…it won’t

For I am there whenever you need

Someone to understand,

We’ll watch the sun chase the darkness away

So come…take my hand.

○Eleanor Parks 2016

Originally published in Are You There, Dad? by Rona Lee Parks* and Neville Winter

* Rona Lee Parks is my poetry pseudonym.

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Albert DeSalvo or George Nassar: Who Was “The Boston Strangler”?

On January 18, 1967, Albert DeSalvo, the man now ubiquitously known as “The Boston Strangler”, was sentenced to life in prison for assault and armed robbery. Yet it is not these crimes for which he is infamous. Rather he is known for the murder of thirteen women throughout the Boston area.

The victims had all been raped or sexually assaulted and then strangled to death with pieces of their own clothing. After his arrest on the assault and armed robbery charges, DeSalvo admitted to all of the killings; however, he was never formally charged with murder, due to a lack of corroborative evidence. Even though the investigative team of police officers working on the case did not truly believe that he was responsible for the killings, still Albert DeSalvo’s name has been written in the annals of criminal history with the epithet “The Boston Strangler” or “The Silk Stocking Murderer”. And yet, to this day disturbing questions remain. Was he really the killer? And if not, how did he obtain his detailed knowledge of the crime scenes? Was he truly a psychotic danger to women and society as a whole? Or did he simply have a deluded notion of how to take care of his family?  In order to try and answer these questions, we have to go back and look again at the crimes which caused panic across an entire city.

On the evening of June 14, 1962, Juris Slesers called at his mother’s home at 77 Gainsborough Street, a quiet, old-fashioned street in the Back Bay area of Boston. Having knocked twice on the door but getting no answer, Juris began to panic. His mother had sounded incredibly depressed when he had spoken to her earlier on the phone. Could she have been so depressed as to have done something silly? Or had she perhaps simply had a fall, and was lying hurt somewhere in the apartment? In desperation, Juris put all his weight behind the door and forced it open, only to find his worst fears realised. He found his mother, Anna E. Slesers, naked on the bathroom floor, the blue cord from his bathrobe around her neck. She was dead. Distraught, Juris called the police to report what he believed was his mother’s tragic suicide.

Homicide detectives James Mellon and John Driscoll were first on the scene. Mellon in particular, would always remember his first sight of Anna Slesers’ body.

“She lay outstretched, a fragile-appearing woman with brown bobbed hair and thin mouth, lying on her back on a gray runner. She wore a blue taffeta housecoat with a red lining, but it had been spread completely apart in front, so that from shoulders down she was nude. She lay grotesquely, her head a few feet from the open bathroom door, her left leg stretched straight toward him, the other flung wide, almost at right angles, and bent at the knee so that she was grossly exposed. The blue cloth cord of her housecoat had been knotted tightly about her neck, its ends turned up so that it might have been a bow, tied little-girl fashion under her chin”

To the detective’s trained eye they could see that the apartment, whilst looking as it had been ransacked, had merely been made to appear that way. A dustbin in the kitchen had been emptied out on the floor, the dresser drawers were open and a case of colour slides was on the bedroom floor. And yet the case had been placed there, carefully, and all Anna’s jewellery, money and a gold watch, had been left untouched.

The investigation revealed that Anna had been strangled with the cord of her bathrobe, which had then been tied in a bow. She had also been sexually assaulted with “some unknown object”. Police drew the conclusion that the crime had begun as a burglary, but that the perpetrator had been disturbed. When he saw Anna standing in her robe, he had been overcome by an uncontrollable urge to assault her. He then killed her to avoid her recognising him. Though this was the official line, the investigating officers were nervous. Already, even with only one killing, the pieces didn’t fit.

Two weeks later, on June 30, 68-year-old Nina Nichols was murdered in her apartment at 1940 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. The apartment looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. Every drawer was open, her possessions were scattered everywhere. However, in one drawer, there was a set of sterling silver which was untouched. Her purse still held all her money; an expensive camera stood on the dresser and she was still wearing her solid gold watch. Later it was determined that all this was for show. Nothing had been taken.

Unlike Anna Slesers, Nina was found clothed, although her housecoat and slip had been pulled up to her waist and her legs spread to leave her exposed. She too had been sexually assaulted and then strangled with her own silk stockings which, just like the cord around Anna’s neck, had been tied in a bow. The time of death was estimated to be 5 p.m.

The very same day, fifteen miles north of Boston, Helen Blake aged 65 met a similar fate at around 10 a.m. She had been strangled with her own stockings and her bra was tied in a bow over them. She too had been sexually assaulted and her apartment ransacked. However, this time, some items were missing. Two diamond rings had been pulled from her fingers and the killer had tried to force open a metal strongbox.

By January 1964, another 10 women – ranging in age from 85 to 19 – and living in various cities across the state of Massachusetts, had been killed at the hands of the man now being dubbed “The Strangler”. They had all been strangled with pieces of their own clothing, and had been left sexually exposed, on display. The city of Boston was in a constant state of panic and single women were sleeping with rows of bottles behind their doors, to act as a kind of early warning system. What they didn’t know though, something the police were reluctant to make public, was that whoever “The Strangler” was, he had not broken into any of his victims’ homes. There was never any sign of forced entry, leaving detectives with the conclusion that his victims had simply let him in.

It is important to bear in mind the violence of these crimes as we now turn our attention to the prime suspect: Albert DeSalvo.

A couple of years before the strangling murders even began, a series of bizarre sex offences took place in the Cambridge area of Boston. A man in his late twenties would knock at the door of a random apartment, and if a young woman answered he would introduce himself thus: “My name is Johnson and I work for a modelling agency. Your name was given to us by someone who thought you make a good model” The man would immediately hasten to add that the modelling would not be nude, but would merely be evening gowns and swimsuits. The pay was $40 an hour and he had been instructed to take the lady’s measurements, if the lady was interested of course. It seemed that a number of the women were not only interested, they were also extremely flattered that someone would think them good enough for swimsuit modelling, and so they allowed him inside to take out his tape measure and measure them.

When he was finished, he told them that if the measurements were suitable, a Mrs. Lewis from the agency would get in touch with them. Of course, given that neither Mrs. Lewis nor the agency ever existed, none of the women were ever contacted. Eventually, some of the women contacted the police.

On March 17, 1961,  a man was caught trying to break into a house. When he was arrested, he not only confessed to attempted breaking and entering, but he also confessed to being “The Measuring Man”. His name was Albert DeSalvo.

The 29-year-old DeSalvo had a lengthy record of arrests, the vast majority of which were for burglary. He would break into houses or apartments and take anything he could lay his hands on or could easily carry. DeSalvo was married with two small children and worked as a press operator in a rubber factory.

When asked why he perpetrated this pathetic charade, he responded: “I’m not good-looking, I’m not educated, but I was able to put something over on high-class people. They were all college kids and I never had anything in my life and I outsmarted them.” DeSalvo was sentenced to 18 months. He was released early for good behaviour, just two months before the first strangling murder.

Albert DeSalvo was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1931. His parents, Frank and Charlotte had five other children. His father was a violently abusive man who regularly beat his wife and children. As a boy, Albert was delinquent, arrested more than once on assault and battery charges. Throughout his adolescence, he went through periods of very good behaviour and then lapses into petty criminality. His mother Charlotte remarried and did her best to keep her son out of trouble. Their relationship, aside from the disappointments she suffered when he got into trouble, was a reasonably good one.

He was in the Army from 1948 through 1956 and was stationed for awhile in Germany. There he met his wife, Irmgard Beck, an attractive woman from a respectable family. At one time, he was promoted to Specialist E-5, but later was demoted to private for failing to obey an order. He received an honourable discharge.

In 1955, he was arrested for fondling a young girl, but the charge was dropped. That year, his first child, Judy, was born. Judy had a physical handicap in the form of congenital pelvic disease. This problem had a large impact on DeSalvo’s home life.

Irmgard was terrified of having another child with a disability. Although she loved her husband dearly, this fear caused her to do anything she could to avoid sex. Nevertheless, sex did take place, albeit infrequently, and in 1960, the couple had a son, Michael. He was perfectly healthy, with no disability whatsoever.

Between 1956 and 1960, he had several arrests for breaking and entering. Each time, he received a suspended sentence. In spite of his brushes with the law, Albert seemed to stay employed. After working as a press operator at American Biltrite Rubber, he worked in a shipyard and subsequently as a construction maintenance worker. Most people who knew Albert DeSalvo liked him. His boss characterized him as a “good, decent, family man and a good worker.” A colleague said of him, “he was a very devoted family man and treated his wife with love and tenderness.”

Early in November of 1964, almost three years after he had been released from jail, DeSalvo was arrested again. This time, however, the charges were far more serious than breaking and entering and measuring prospective models for a fake modelling agency.

On October 27, a newly married woman lay in bed dozing just after her husband left for work. Suddenly, there was a man in her room who put a knife to her throat. “Not a sound or I’ll kill you,” he told her. He stuffed her underwear in her mouth and tied her in a spread eagle position to the bedposts with her clothes. He kissed her and fondled her, and then he asked her how to get out of the apartment. “You be quiet for ten minutes.” Then, bizarrely, he apologized and fled. The woman got a very good look at his face. After giving police the description, the sketch rendered by the police artist reminded the detectives of the “Measuring Man”.

DeSalvo was brought to the station where the victim was able to observe him through a one-way mirror. There was no doubt about it. He was the man. DeSalvo was released on bail. Routinely, his photo went over the police teletype network and soon calls came in from Connecticut where they were seeking a sexual assailant they called the “Green Man”, because he wore green work pants.

Police arrested him at home and arranged for the victims to identify him. DeSalvo was mortified that his wife would see him in handcuffs. For her part, however, she was not surprised. Albert, she said, was obsessed with sex. No one woman would ever be enough for him. In fact, the Green Man had assaulted four women in one day in different towns in Connecticut. Trying to be as supportive as she could in the face of such devastating circumstances, Irmgard told Albert to be completely truthful and not to hold anything back.

This he duly did. He admitted breaking into four hundred apartment and two rapes. He had assaulted over 300 women in four states. But still there was a problem. DeSalvo was known as a braggart and a blowhard. Therefore, could it really be that he had committed so many crimes without being detected.  DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for observation. Although the police did not believe that DeSalvo could be the Strangler, they wanted the psychiatrists there to examine him.

Shortly after DeSalvo arrived at Bridgewater, a uniquely dangerous criminal named George Nassar also became an inmate. He had been charged with a vicious execution-style murder of a gas station attendant. Nassar was no ordinary thug. His IQ approached genius level and his ability to manipulate people was highly developed. While in prison for an earlier murder, he had been studying Russian and other subjects. He was put in the same ward with DeSalvo and soon became his confidant.

In early March of 1965, DeSalvo’s wife Irmgard got a call at her sister’s house in Denver from a F. Lee Bailey, who said he was Albert’s attorney. He told her to assume a different name, leave the area with her children and go into hiding at once to avoid the deluge of publicity that was going to descend upon her if she didn’t do what he said. “Something big is going to blow up about Albert – it will be on the front pages of every newspaper in 24 hours. I’m flying out to see you tomorrow so I can help you myself.”

The following day, F. Lee Bailey met with Irmgard and told her that Albert had confessed to being the strangler. She didn’t believe it. Indeed, she asked why Albert would confess to such an atrocious lie. It must be, she said, another of his attempts to seem important. There was no way he was capable of such brutality. And yet, if he was not “The Strangler”, why on earth would he confess?

The answer, or rather one possible answer, is that Albert was thinking about money. He knew that given his sheer number of crimes he would be going to prison for a long time, perhaps for the rest of his natural life. Therefore, the idea of having to somehow look after Irmgard and his children was at the forefront of his mind. The idea of selling a lucrative story and possibly collecting reward money began to seem like an attractive possibility.

It is known that in the Bridgewater psychiatric assessment unit George Nassar and Albert DeSalvo discussed the reward money for information leading to the conviction of the Strangler. The police appeal for information had mentioned a reward of $10,000 and Nassar and DeSalvo mistakenly assumed that this meant $10,000 would be paid for each victim of the Strangler, meaning a total of $110,000 for the eleven official victims. If Nassar turned him in and DeSalvo confessed, they could work out a deal to split the money.

DeSalvo believed there was a fair to even chance that he could convince the psychiatrists that he was insane and would therefore spend the rest of his life in an institution. Given that, assuming his plans all worked out of course, he wouldn’t have to worry about money, this appeared to be an attractive proposition considering the alternatives.  F. Lee Bailey, who had already distinguished himself in the Dr. Sam Sheppard case, was George Nassar’s lawyer. Bailey heard about DeSalvo from Nassar and went to visit Albert with a Dictaphone on March 6, 1965. Not only did Albert confess to the murders of the eleven “official” victims, but he admitted to killing two other women – Mary Brown in Lawrence and another elderly woman whom he said died of a heart attack before he could strangle her. Speaking about DeSalvo, F. Lee Bailey said “I felt very comfortable being around him. That was one of the pieces that fell into place in the puzzle of the Boston Strangler. It helped explain why he had been able to evade detection despite more than two and a half years of investigation. DeSalvo was Dr. Jekyll; the police had been looking for Mr. Hyde. One of the things that struck me about DeSalvo at our first meeting was his courteous, even gentle manner. I stared at him, seriously considering the possibility that he might be the Strangler, and I felt something that verged on awe. As for DeSalvo, his gaze dropped from time to time in what appeared to be embarrassment.”

F. Lee Bailey asked DeSalvo forthrightly, what was it that he wanted from him? DeSalvo was equally forthright. “I know I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life locked up somewhere. I just hope it’s a hospital, and not a hole like this [Bridgewater]. But if I could tell my story to somebody who could write it, maybe I could make some money for my family.”

Bailey thought that there must be some way to allow DeSalvo to confess without setting him up for the death penalty. However, he first needed to be sure that DeSalvo’s confession was accurate and so he called in Lieutenant Donovan and asked him to interview DeSalvo to see if his story checked out.

It did. Murder by murder DeSalvo gave police details of the crimes that only someone who had been there would have known. It was a blow by blow account of his actions for the two years between 1962 and 1964. And as if that were not enough, there had been no further attacks since DeSalvo had been in custody. The police, just like F. Lee Bailey, believed every word.

Despite this, however, doubts remained – not just in the minds of those who knew DeSalvo, but also of those who cared to look at the case with an open mind. There was not a shred of physical evidence to link DeSalvo with any of the victims. Not a single witness could place him at the scene of, or indeed anywhere near, that of the murders. Those witnesses who had seen suspicious activity around the victims’ apartments were shown photographs of DeSalvo. All of them, to a man, failed to recognise him.

In addition, there was one startling piece of evidence which, despite DeSalvo’s apparent intimate knowledge of the crimes, he did not know. In at least two of the victims’ homes, extinguished cigarettes of the Salem brand had been found. Given that the victims did not smoke, they could only have belonged to the killer. Albert DeSalvo was asked if he smoked. He did not.

But something even more startling was about to occur. Two eyewitnesses, who had given police a description of a man whom they had seen entering one of the victim’s apartments and had spoken to, were taken to the Bridgewater facility to identify DeSalvo. What they did not know was that George Nassar would also be there. Both witnesses were adamant. They did not recognise DeSalvo…but George Nassar on the other hand. He was most definitely the man they had seen and spoken to.

On January 18, 1967, Albert DeSalvo was jailed for life after being found guilty of assault and armed robbery. The fact that no corroborative evidence to support his confession could be provided in court, meant that he was never formally charged with being “The Boston Strangler”. Because the jury believed that he was legally sane, DeSalvo would serve his sentence in prison, rather than his preferred psychiatric hospital.

Albert DeSalvo was serving his life sentence in Walpole State Prison, a maximum security facility now known as MCI-Cedar Junction. In 1973, he called two people – a man called Robey who had worked on The Strangler case – and a reporter. He asked them to meet with him at the prison the next day. He said he could not carry on any longer and he was going to tell them who “The Boston Strangler” really was.

That night, Albert DeSalvo was stabbed to death.

Robey said “He had asked to be placed in the infirmary under special lockup about a week before. Something was going on within the prison, and I think he felt he had to talk quickly. There were people in the prison, including guards, that were not happy with him…Somebody had to leave an awful lot of doors open, which meant, because there were several guards one would have to go by, there had to be a fair number of people paid or asked to turn their backs or something. But somebody put a knife into Albert DeSalvo’s heart sometime between evening check and the morning.”

In December 2001, Albert DeSalvo’s body was exhumed and DNA samples taken. These were then checked against tiny samples of DNA taken from one of the murder victims. They did not match.

Albert DeSalvo was a burglar, a rapist and a braggart, and would today have received treatment for what would be recognised as a sex addiction. However, in spite of all his machinations, all the evidence points to one startling fact. He was not, and is not, a killer.

A few years before his death, Albert DeSalvo wrote this poem. Perhaps he had realised the true ramifications of holding up his hands to a crime he did not commit and was sick of prison life.

Here is the story of the Strangler, yet untold,
The man who claims he murdered thirteen women,
young and old.
The elusive Strangler, there he goes,
Where his wanderlust sends him, no one knows
He struck within the light of day,
Leaving not one clue astray.
Young and old, their lips are sealed,
Their secret of death never revealed.
Even though he is sick in mind,
He’s much too clever for the police to find.
To reveal his secret will bring him fame,
But burden his family with unwanted shame.
Today he sits in a prison cell,
Deep inside only a secret he can tell.
People everywhere are still in doubt,
Is the Strangler in prison or roaming about?

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A Garden For Bella and Tommy

I sat down with my morning coffee and and began to scroll through the news on my phone. One story, published by The Guardian, caught my attention. As I read the story of the reburial of six British soldiers, over a century since they lost their lives in the quagmire of mud and blood in Flanders fields, I could barely stop the tears.

For me, the story had added poignancy. Friday April 29, 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of my own great-granddad’s death at Ypres. Private Frederick Cunliffe was killed when he stepped on a mine, having lied about his age to enlist in the army two years earlier. I have a copy of the telegram, delivered to my great-grandmother, informing her of her husband’s death; its breviloquence only adds to the heartbreak. The fact that I now live in the country which he died attempting to liberate was not lost on me when I visited his grave several years ago. As my mum, dad, sister and I stopped to sign the cemetery’s visitor book, I could think of only two words which summed up how I felt about the sacrifice he had made: Thank you.

Reading The Guardian story, I thought too about a short story I wrote some time ago, inspired both by my great-grandma and great-granddad, and by the house I had just moved into, whose garden was the most serene place I had ever seen. The story was entitled, “A Garden For Bella and Tommy”, and rather than waffle on any more, I thought you may like to read it for yourself.

A GARDEN FOR BELLA AND TOMMY

○Eleanor Parks 2016

The snow had fallen heavily overnight, and the residents of the garden – the tiny nightingale with its enchanting song, the speckled song thrush, the scarlet-breasted robin, the bushy-tailed red squirrel, fleet of foot and fur of flame, the little hedgehog and the great spotted woodpecker – all woke to find their home swathed in winter’s white veil. The grass, once green, was covered by a thick blanket of unspoiled snow that glistened in the sun as she spread her warm fingers of light over the frozen land. The ivy, dark green and bejewelled with frost, sparkled too; stunningly beautiful, like ivory on jade. A fir tree, wreathed and garlanded with winter’s stole, offered shelter amongst its emerald fronds, whilst the old-fashioned wishing well which stood beneath had frozen solid, entombing the hopes and dreams cast therein, until the Spring thaw would set them free.   

At the far end of the garden, the oak and beech tree, their naked, rime encrusted limbs outstretched to greet the dawn, stood beside a small brook which once babbled merrily, but whose voice was now muted by a thick layer of ice.  

Bella was 8-years-old when she first stumbled across the garden. She had accidentally lost her grip on her mother’s hand, and since her mother neither noticed nor cared that her little girl was no longer by her side she had wandered, lost and alone through the city where she lived until she happened across a large, heavy, wrought iron gate. The gate was securely fastened with a thick chain and a lock as big as Bella’s hand, but the bars were just wide enough to allow Bella to squeeze through. Beyond the gate was a gravel pathway. Bella delighted in the way the gravel crunched beneath her feet as she walked. At first the pathway ran straight ahead, but soon turned sharp right, where it gave onto a small courtyard with another locked gate. This second gate was too narrow for Bella to squeeze through, but, undaunted and possessed with the energetic zeal of youthful adventure, she saw that she could easily scale the bars and drop down onto the other side. This she did effortlessly, and after rounding a large privet hedge, Bella found herself in the garden. 

“Nothing cures the senses but the senses” wrote Oscar Wilde. For Bella, now aged 80, this was certainly true. She still came to the garden, her “little piece of heaven” as she liked to call it, to escape the humdrum banality of her life, but primarily to fill the void of lonliness which, like a swirling black hole, sat at the centre of her being, threatening to pull her in entirely. 

Today, a glorious day in the height of summer, as Bella stepped barefoot onto the crisp, cool grass, every last vestige of negative emotion was banished absolutely. The hedgerows were ablaze with violet blooms, their petals still wet with morning dew, shimmering brilliantly in the bright summer sun. The grass too had erupted in a riot of colour, as pink tulips, blood-red poppies and purple and yellow pansies strained their heads upwards towards the clear blue sky. The oak and beech tree, the boughs adorned with glossy, bright green leaves, played host to a veritable array of birds who sang and called as if in greeting to their faithful friend. The fir, too, was busy with energy and life. The fleet-footed red squirrel, no doubt a descendent of that which she had seen on her very first visit, and with a family of its own, shimmied down the trunk and scurried across the garden, stopping here and there to snaffle a few tasty acorns discarded by the oak. High up, amongst the boughs of the beech tree, the great-spotted woodpecker poked its head out of the home it had hammered out for itself earlier in the spring.             

Gingerly, Bella eased herself down onto the cool grass. She wasn’t entirely sure how she would get up again, but she would think about that when it was time to go. As she sat there amongst the flowers, she thought about all that had happened in the years since she first found her idyll. The world had seen two wars, with millions lost. Friends and family had come and gone; some had simply lost touch; others had passed away. Meanwhile technology had moved apace, bringing gadgets and gizmos to the masses, making the world smarter, and yet somehow colder.      

She thought too about Tommy, the love of her life, the only man she had ever loved. They had met at the cinema in January 1914. She was 18; he 21. Bella had arrived at the cinema with a different date, a local boy about whom her mother always said was “a wrong un” and that “his eyes are too close together.” As it happened, her mother was right, for as they entered the cinema, he suggestively suggested that they sit in the back row. Bella had smiled and said that this was only their first date, and besides, she wasn’t that kind of girl. He shrugged and said OK, but then half way through the film he said that he had to go to the toilet and that was the last time she saw him. When the film had finished she walked out to the foyer alone, dejected, rejected, but determined not to be upset. Her determination was never that strong though, and the tears began to fall. That’s when she met Tommy. He was there with friends, but seeing her distressed, had offered to walk her home.  

Love blossomed during the walk, and from that moment, until the war came, they were inseparable. She brought Tommy to the garden, and was thrilled that he was as enraptured by its serenity, tranquility and beauty as she. They would sit together on the grass, just holding hands and talking like they had known each other all their lives, or simply listening to the sounds of nature all around them. It was here in the garden that he had told her he loved her, and, with a freshly picked poppy in hand, had got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.

With war looming on the horizon, Bella and Tommy married post haste. After the ceremony they took the train to Brighton for their honeymoon. That was the last time she had ever been truly happy; the last time she had ever felt complete.

Tommy, like the thousands of others who believed that they “would be home by Christmas” enlisted in the army and was immediately posted to Belgium. He died two months later, in the mud at Ypres, leaving a world at war, and Bella alone.     

That day, when the postman arrived with the telegram, Bella had run to the garden. She remembered how the birds seemed to fall silent, as though they could sense her grief. Strangely, they were silent again now. Aware of someone standing close beside her, Bella looked up. Tommy’s handsome face gazed down at her. He was smiling, not a day older than when they parted all those years ago at the train station. 

“Tommy?” she whispered.

“I’ve come to walk you home,” he smiled “Just like when we met”

He reached down and handed her a poppy, and then sat down beside her, like he had done on that wonderful day when she first shared the garden with him. As they sat on the cool grass face to face, she closed her eyes to blink away the tears of joy. 

Two days later, on page five of the local newspaper, was the headline:

ELDERLY WOMAN FOUND DEAD IN SECLUDED GARDEN

CLUTCHING A POPPY: A TRAGIC, LONELY DEATH 

If only they knew.

Note: You can find a couple more short stories in the short compilation Ouijabble

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