The Charles Stuart Murders And the Racist Branding Boston Just Can’t Seem to Shake

THE STORY WE WERE SOLD

October 23, 1989: “My wife’s been shot. I’ve been shot.’’

The first words the public ever heard from Charles Stuart grabbed an entire nation by the collar and shook it awake.

Just minutes after leaving Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Stuart called the  police on his cellular phone. Carol had been shot in the head. Charles had been shot in the stomach.

We first knew of Carol and Charles Stuart, a young, affluent couple from Reading, preparing for the arrival of their first child by attending a birthing class. They had been married for four years.

Advertisement

For 13 excruciating minutes, Massachusetts State Police dispatcher Gary McLaughlin pleaded with Stuart, asking for a cross street or reference point as cruisers scrambled to find the couple’s lost Toyota Cressida in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood. Officers found Charles and Carol’s blood-soaked car near the intersection of St. Alphonsus Street and Horadan Way.

“She’s still gurgling. There’s a busy street up ahead, ahh man. I can’t see where I am.”

“Bear, hang in with me, Chuck. Just try to give me any indication of where you might be, hospitals, if you see a building.”

“Oh, I’m driving with my lights off. I can’t reach forward, it’s too painful.”

“Just tell me what the, what the street is, Chuck.”

“Ahh, man! I’m pulling over. Tremont Street.”

“You’re at Tremont?”

“Oh, man, I’m gonna pass out. . . . It hurts, and my wife has stopped gurgling, she’s stopped breathing.”

(Excerpt from transcript of Charles Stuart’s 911 call)

Charles was taken to Boston City Hospital, where a surgical team worked for six hours to save his life.

Carol was rushed back to Brigham & Women’s. Doctors delivered her son, Christopher, two months early.

At 3 a.m. on October 24, 1989, Carol died at the same hospital where she had taken the birthing class just hours earlier.

On October 28, Carol was buried in Medford. More than 800 people, including Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, Governor Michael Dukakis, and Cardinal Bernard Law, attended her funeral. Charles was still struggling to survive at Boston City Hospital, but a eulogy he wrote was read aloud during Carol’s service.

“Good night sweet wife, my love. God has called you to His hands. Not to take you away from me or the happiness and gladness you brought me, but to bring you away from the cruelty and the violence that fills this world.

“He said that for us to truly believe, we must know that His will was done and that there was some right in this meanest of acts. In our souls, we must forgive this sinner because He would too.

“My life will be more empty without you, as will the lives of your family and friends. You have brought joy and kindness to every life you’ve touched. Now you sleep away from me. I will never again know the feeling of your hand in mine, but I will always feel you. I miss you and I love you.

Your husband, Chuck.’’ (Written by Charles Stuart, emphasis added)

On November 9, Christopher Stuart, the baby delivered by Caesarean section after his mother was shot in the head, died of respiratory failure. He was 17 days old.

THE REACTION

The shock of the killing led to an immediate, furious reaction in and around Boston. Mayor Flynn vowed to find the shooter, and ordered Boston Police Commissioner Francis Roache to send every available officer into Mission Hill.

“I demand that the Boston Police Department continue to be extremely aggressive in cracking down on people who are using guns to kill innocent people … It’s intolerable. We will use every lawful tool to support our police officers in cracking down on gun-wielding criminals.’’ (Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, October 24, 1989)

Advertisement

Two days after the murder, investigators were building a profile of the man they thought was responsible.

“Investigators say they are convinced that the gunman either lives in or routinely commits crime around the Mission Hill housing project….Some police sources believe the assailant probably has committed several similar robberies by jumping into stopped cars at intersections.’’ (Boston Globe, Oct. 25, 1989)

Lawmakers wasted no time demanding Massachusetts reinstate the death penalty.

Boston City Councilor Bruce Bolling described a city under siege:

“The situation is reminiscent of the Vietnam War. The only question now is what is the body count.” (Boston Herald, October 25, 1989)

While the police cracked down in the neighborhoods and politicians vowed to bring vengeance back to the justice system, the veneration of Charles Stuart continued unabated. First responders who worked to save his life praised his concern for his wife’s well-being.

A Boston Globe editorial hailed his “gallant calls for help’’ the night of the shooting.

The Boston Herald made “Camelot’’ comparisons, alluding to New England’s strongest familial imagery to venerate the young couple’s life.

Not everyone was comfortable with the overwhelming sense of vengeance that swept the community. While a candlelight vigil in Carol’s honor took place on Mission Hill, community leaders quietly worried that white couples faced with crime were valued more by city leaders than the members of the city’s black community who had been victimized for years.

“You can’t help but wonder if what you’re watching is a class situation, that it’s all right for the poor to put up with an enormous amount of shootings and killings, but presumably, if you’re white, upper-income and suburban, maybe that changes things. That’s sad.’’ (City Councilor David Scondras, October 24, 1989)

‘A 6-FOOT BLACK MAN ABOUT 30 YEARS OLD’

More than 100 additional officers were assigned to scour Mission Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan, searching for anyone who fit the vague description Stuart gave of his attacker. He was black. He had a raspy voice. He was wearing a black sweatsuit with red stripes. He had tried to rob the couple, but then said “You’re 5-0,’’ to Stuart and started firing, apparently convinced Charles was a cop.

“The police kept telling the kids that they’d have to come take a ride with them,’’ said Leslie Harris, a public defender familiar with the case. “The way they intimidated these kids into making statements, some heads should roll.’’ (The Boston Globe, January 8, 1990)

As the dragnet moved through the neighborhoods, police started to zero in on suspects.

Advertisement

The first named suspect was Alan Swanson, a homeless black man who owned a black sweatsuit.

Swanson was held for three weeks, until police focused in on a new suspect, William “Willie’’ Bennett.

Bennett was roughly the right age and height, had a raspy voice, and had a history of committing violent crimes, including two shootings. On December 28, Stuart reportedly had a “strong physical reaction’’ when shown Bennett in a police line-up.

THE UNRAVELING (73 DAYS AFTER THE SHOOTING)

He fell an estimated 145 feet before hitting the water. On January 3, 1990, Charles Stuart, “gallant’’ husband of a slain wife and “hero’’ father of a murdered son, jumped from the lower deck of the Tobin Bridge to his death.

He left behind a note, though it included no admission of guilt. Prosecutors, however, had been hours away from arresting Stuart, after his own brother came forward and told police that Charles was responsible.

Matthew (pictured above) told police he knew Charles was up to something but didn’t know he was going to kill Carol. The two brothers had met the night of the shooting, and Matthew had taken from his brother a Gucci bag containing a gun and jewelry. Matthew drove to Revere where he and a friend pitched it over the side of the Dizzy Bridge.

Matthew said he finally came forward when he realized Charles had fingered Bennett for the crime, and that another man would be charged for the murder. (In 1991, Matthew Stuart, who helped his brother by taking a bag — no questions asked — and dumping it into a river, was found guilty of obstruction of justice and insurance fraud. John McMahon, the friend who helped Matthew dispose of the evidence, was also convicted on obstruction charges. In September 2011, Matthew Stuart died from a drug overdose in a Cambridge homeless shelter.)

In the days that followed, news surfaced that Charles had received life insurance payouts to the tune of $82,000. Charles took some of that money and bought a new car, which he promptly abandoned on the Tobin in early January. Accounts differed on whether there were more life insurance policies and when they were taken out.

THE AFTERMATH

News of Charles Stuart’s activities in the weeks before and after the murder came spilling out of the shadows. Just days before he jumped to his death, he was in Peabody buying jewelry for a secret girlfriend. A recorded call to the Revere Fire Department proved at least two other siblings were in on the details before they became public.

News outlets continued to publish descriptions of Charles Stuart by neighbors – descriptions that now completely defied reality:

“Neighbors and relatives said the four Stuart boys were extremely close growing up and were among the most popular in the neighborhood.” (Boston Globe, January 6, 1990)

“Neighbors recalled the Stuarts kissing each other goodbye each morning and hello each night in their Reading driveway.” (The Boston Globe, January 7, 1990)

Charles was laid to rest. The priest performing the funeral service asked mourners to “forgive whatever wrongs he may have done.’’

The national media, which had so quickly seized on Stuart’s lies as proof of a national crime wave run amok, now returned to the story with a vengeance. Writers across the country jockeyed to decry the lie, what it had done to Boston, and how the press and officials were so easily swayed by Charles Stuart’s story.

“A vicious round of finger-pointing began here today as prosecutors, the police and the news media began tracing the trail of faulty assumptions, disregarded suspicions, blunders and perhaps even lies that put the wrong man at the center of one of the most highly publicized and emotion-charged murder cases in the city’s history.” (New York Times, January 6, 1990)

“Was Stuart’s suspected plot to kill his wife so extraordinarily cunning that an entire city cannot be faulted for having been duped? Or did Boston also fall victim to its own prejudices and stereotypes when it ignored inconsistencies in Stuart’s story and launched a manhunt that tore apart a racially mixed neighborhood?” (Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1990)

“The crime that riveted the nation nearly tore this town apart … the awful ruse has come unraveled, scarcely a soul in Boston does not feel victimized. Blacks are outraged that Charles Stuart’s cynical cover story prompted a police hunt of almost unprecedented intensity and intrusiveness. Whites are pained to find themselves manipulated into apparent racism. And the integrated urban neighborhood where the murder took place feels stigmatized and violated, its name sullied beyond simple repair. Then there are the investigators and journalists so thoroughly taken in, now looking ridiculous. And the politicians who rushed to make the wounded husband a hero of their favorite causes. Now they look craven.” (Knight Ridder Newspapers, January 21, 1990)

THE BACKPEDALING

Those who led the dragnet through Boston’s black neighborhoods and who pointed fingers at anyone in a black sweatsuit, started looking for cover. Mayor Flynn apologized to the Bennett family, telling Mrs. Bennett that “what has taken place has been very unfortunate.” The Bennett family later said he stayed for only a couple of minutes and wouldn’t sit down when offered a seat.

When pressed about his role, Mayor Flynn said:

“I said everybody owes an apology to the Mission Hill neighborhood…to the black community, and they all owe an apology to the people of the city. We should all stand in line waiting for that apology.’’ (Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, January 5, 1990)

Suffolk County District Attorney Newman Flanagan continued to play both sides of the fence, insisting he never said Willie Bennett was a suspect, but that there were witnesses who claimed Bennett had committed the crime.

For the city’s black leaders, the backpedaling was too much to bear. They demanded not just apologies, but action to address the blind charge into their neighborhoods. Police had stormed Boston’s inner city, searching for a man who did not exist, and turning neighborhoods upside down in the process.

Roxbury community activist Sadiki Kambon told The Boston Globe:

“Race is the primary issue in this situation, as the mayor and Boston police, with racist attitudes, reacted emotionally to the report that a white female had been murdered by an African male.”

A Boston Globe columnist demanded apologies for Willie Bennett, Alan Swanson, young African American males, Mission Hill, and Roxbury.

“Now, race is out the window. Now there is only the racial embarrassment the likes of which has not been seen since 1976, when African American Theodore Landsmark was speared with the American flag by white Americans at Boston City Hall Plaza.Suddenly, a lot of African Americans are owed an apology.’’ (Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe January 5, 1990)

Edlina Stallings, a tenants’ advocate, spoke about the message sent to residents of the neighborhoods targeted during the police manhunt:

“The message was that people in the projects weren’t human, that we’re animals.” (Jet Magazine, January 22, 1990)

While most writers damned officials for their knee-jerk incursion into Mission Hill, and for fingering Bennett for the crime, one prominent Boston media icon decided to go another way.

Mike Barnicle, then a Boston Globe columnist, excoriated black leaders for their anger, saying Bennett had been a logical choice as a suspect.

“The man’s pathetic, violent history is so much a part of the unyielding issues of race, crime and drugs tearing daily at America that it is amazing how any black minister or black politician could ever stand up and howl in public that his arrest was a product of police bigotry and a volley of discrimination aimed at all black residents of Boston. Where, after everything they had been told, would they expect the cops to start looking? The Myopia Hunt Club?’’ (Mike Barnicle, The Boston Globe, January 7, 1990)

Would Boston learn anything from the Charles Stuart case? It depended on who you asked.

Despite all that had gone wrong, Mission Hill resident Scott Hellig held out some small glimmer of hope:

“There are some hard lessons learned from all this, but maybe we’ve all learned something about ourselves because of this. Maybe, just maybe, we won’t be so quick next time to paint everything simply in terms of black and white.’’ (Boston Globe, January 5, 1990)

But Chuck Turner, a community organizer in Roxbury (who would go on to become a Boston city councilor), was less optimistic about what the Charles Stuart legacy might mean for the city. Turner told Jet Magazine:

“Black people in particular have to look at it and wonder what hope we have for justice in a country that took this man’s lie and made him and his family a symbol of national mourning.”

THE LEGACY

For Boston, the case joined a long line of incidents that showed the city’s less than adept handle on race relations. Comparisons were soon drawn between Stuart and the Central Park jogger case in New York, in which five innocent black men were arrested and charged after a young white woman was assaulted.

A month after Charles Stuart hit the water, Jet Magazine called for a boycott of Boston newspapers “as a way to protest what many in the Black community considered unfair coverage.” It pointed out what was obvious to anyone who had lived through Boston’s busing crisis, which had been widely considered – until Stuart – the city’s low point on race relations. The Charles Stuart saga meant that Boston could no longer pretend that busing had been a blip. Charles Stuart was strike two. And it was a big one.

That same month, the FBI began an inquiry into the actions taken by Boston’s police in the days following Charles Stuart’s 911 call.

“The F.B.I. inquiry, initiated by United States Attorney Wayne Budd, will ‘try to find out if there are grounds for us to start a full-scale investigation,’’ said Paul Cavanagh, a spokesman for the bureau. Mr. Cavanagh said that lawyers from the Justice Department’s civil rights division might take part and that the inquiry would focus on allegations that the police threatened witnesses to make a case against the black suspect, William Bennett, 39 years old.’’ (New York Times, February 25, 1990)

In September 1990, less than a year after the murder of Carol and Christopher, Boston Celtics star Dee Brown and his fiancee were pulled over by Wellesley police. With guns drawn, officers ordered the pair to lie face down on the street. Brown, they said, matched the description of a man who had robbed a local bank earlier in the week. But the description was of a six-foot-two light-skinned black man, and Brown, while of that approximate height, did not have light skin.

In 1995, Willie Bennett sued the Boston Police Department, accusing them of having violated his civil rights.

Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University’s Brudnick Center on Violence, discussed the Charles Stuart legacy with The Boston Globe in 1999.

“The Stuart episode was extremely embarrassing for the Boston Police Department and extremely embarrassing for white residents. The police and the citizens who believed this story were disgraced. It completely confirmed the impression which took hold during busing [to desegregate the schools] that Boston police were racist, that they used excessive force, and that Boston was one of the most racist communities in the United States.” (The Boston Globe, October 22, 1999)

Levin also told the Globe he thought there was a “more positive part” of the legacy: “People are much more sensitive to race now,” he said.

In April 2000, Willie Bennett told The Boston Globe that the Stuart case still haunts him.

“I don’t trust anybody. I barely trust myself … The police falsely pinned a crime on me once and they can do it again…I have no faith in the law enforcement and I don’t like cops. Nothing has changed. You still have those same racist cops on the police force.’’ (The Boston Globe, April 6, 2000)

Given his experience, Bennett certainly had reason to question the integrity of Boston law enforcement. But continued incidents of racism in and around the city gave credence to Bennett’s claims.

In 2003, an after-school program in Boston’s metrowest suburbs put a black kindergarten student on a bus destined for Dorchester, an inner city neighborhood in Boston. The child didn’t live in Dorchester, and was returned home after a parent saw him get off the bus with no one to pick him up.

In 2009, a Cambridge Police officer arrested Henry Louis Gates and charged him with disorderly conduct. A 911 call alerted police to a break-in at the Harvard professor’s home. Turns out, the would-be thieves were Gates and his driver, struggling to open a jammed front door.

In 2012, Deadspin ranked the most racist cities in America. Boston came in at number two. After Birmingham, Alabama.

Twenty five years after Charles and Carol Stuart drove away from that birthing class at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, matters of racism still bedevil the city.

In May 2014, the Internet lit up with the news that the ‘n-word’ was trending on Twitter in Boston. There were widespread reports of as many as 17,000 racist tweets directed at black Montreal Canadiens star P.K. Subban. Within days, it came to light that the real number of racist tweets was closer to a couple hundred, if not less.

In October 2014, a Boston Herald cartoon depicting President Obama in the White House bathroom with a tube of watermelon-flavored toothpaste drew criticism. The cartoonist claimed ignorance, but with Boston’s history, the city long ago lost the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questions of racism.

Boston hopes to be a city known for its technology, its healthcare, and its educational institutions. But you don’t get to pick your legacy. You make it.

* An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the police dispatcher who spoke to Charles Stuart on October 23 as working for the Boston Police Department. The dispatcher was Gary McLaughlin, with the Massachusetts State Police.

Loading Comments...