Montage of front pages via CommonWealth Beacon
The Boston Globe’s multimedia series on Charles and Carol Stuart, “Nightmare in Mission Hill,” is good and important work. Everyone who wants to understand Boston and its racist past (and present) should read it. Especially impressive is the layered approach: a deeply reported text-based story, audio clips, a podcast, a documentary film, photos, front pages and documents.
Going into it, I wondered what I could possibly learn given how much those of us who were here were immersed in the tragedy at the time. If you’re new to Boston, the Stuarts were a white couple from the suburbs who, in October 1989, were shot while they were driving home from a childbirth class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Carol Stuart and her unborn child died; Charles Stuart lived and told police they had been shot by a Black man. The city’s Black neighborhoods were turned upside down until, finally, law enforcement identified a career criminal named William Bennett as the likely shooter. But they later came to believe that the actual shooter was Charles Stuart himself and, with the police likely to arrest him at any moment, he jumped off the Tobin Bridge to his death.
The case was one of the most notorious crimes in Boston history, up there with the Boston Strangler and Sacco and Vanzetti. And you might wonder why investigators didn’t alight on the most obvious suspect, Charles Stuart, right from the start. The series answers that question. First, the trauma surgeon who operated on Charles determined that he couldn’t have shot himself given the angle of the bullet’s entry; and second, he nearly died from his wounds.
Given that 34 years have passed, it was hard for me to sort out what I learned from the series and what I might have known at one time but had forgotten. So I appreciate the Globe’s laying out its new findings in the eighth and final part. Among the revelations:
- Police ignored evidence implicating Charles Stuart and sidelined two detectives who’d suspected him from the earliest days of their investigation.
- The Stuarts and people around them couldn’t keep their mouths shut. By the time Charles Stuart finally jumped, more than 30 people knew that he had put together the plot himself. Yet the secret, such as it was, held, and at least two attempts to blow the whistle on Charles went nowhere.
- Matthew Stuart, Charles’ brother, may have been more than an innocent dupe, as he had always been portrayed. The Globe found that “evidence points to Chuck’s brother, Matthew, playing a much larger role in the shooting than previously known, running counter to his claims he was tricked into helping get rid of the murder weapon.”
The series is not perfect. Matthew Stuart’s 2011 death from an overdose is relegated to a separate timeline, which a lot of readers aren’t going to see. More significant is that the Globe makes little effort to deal with the media’s shortcomings and failures. Certainly the media couldn’t solve the crime independently, and the severity of Charles Stuart’s wounds served to insulate him from closer scrutiny. Still, the press at that time, rather than serving as an independent monitor of power, went along for the ride.
I see that there’s an epilogue coming soon called “Media Sins.” I’ll be reading that closely. But even at the time it was clear that the media had failed in several ways, as Alex S. Jones detailed in The New York Times (free link) several weeks after Charles Stuart’s death. Jones’ explosive lead: “The tangled Stuart murder case has been a near-obsession for this city’s news organizations for the past three months, but the character and tone of their reporting coverage have prompted charges that the press has been racist, incompetent and reckless.”
Jones took on the Globe and the Boston Herald, then a much more robust daily paper than it is today, for running with anonymously sourced tips that didn’t pan out, such as a Globe report that Stuart had plotted his wife’s death as part of an insurance scheme so that he could start a restaurant and a Herald story that Stuart had been treated for cocaine addiction. Jones also wrote:
Critics have also said that the city’s news organizations allowed themselves to be manipulated by law enforcement agencies. For instance, during the investigation, two black men were identified at different times in news reports by anonymous police sources as the “primary suspect,” though there was no direct evidence against either one. Critics say this is a tactic investigators sometimes use to advertise for evidence.
Even after William Bennett’s exoneration following Charles Stuart’s death, then-Globe columnist Mike Barnicle wrote a column (available in databases but not on the open web) defending the police and blasting leaders in the Black community who were attempting to shine a light on the racism that undergirded much of the police response.
“Naturally, a pack of publicity hounds within the black community — a few ministers and headline-hunting politicians now passing themselves off as skilled homicide investigators — jumped on Bennett’s arrest as proof of a racist plot by the white power structure to make every black man, woman and child in Boston out as ruthless, bloodthirsty criminals,” Barnicle wrote in a column that appeared on Jan. 9, 1990, five days after Charles Stuart’s fatal jump. He added: “I guess they are upset because nobody thought to beat the truth out of Stuart that night in the hospital after he had shot and very nearly killed himself.”
As I said, I’m interested to see how the epilogue deals with this and other media failures.
“Nightmare in Mission Hill” is a tremendous contribution to Boston’s attempts to come to terms with its well-deserved racist reputation. The team that put this together deserve a lot of credit — including but not limited to reporters Adrian Walker, Evan Allen (the lead writer), Elizabeth Koh and Andrew Ryan. I just signed up for the newsletter, I look forward to dipping into the podcast, and I hope that the series serves to advance the ongoing conversation about how Boston can work toward becoming a better, more inclusive home for all of us.
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