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Book Review: ‘Murder At Breakheart Hill Farm’

Book Review:  ‘Murder At Breakheart Hill Farm’

A guest post by Anita Brewer-Siljeholm

True crime writing has arrived on the doorstep of the Fells. In their absorbing new book, Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm: The Shocking 1900 Case that Gripped Boston’s North Shore, authors Douglas Heath and Alison Simcox, who wrote Images of America: Middlesex Fells and The Lost Mill Village of Middlesex Fells, reconstruct a grisly murder investigation at what is now DCR’s Breakheart Reservation in Saugus.

With impeccable research and endless curiosity, evident on the walks they lead in the Fells for the Friends of the Fells, Heath and Simcox turn to a true crime story that riveted Boston 120 years ago. They discovered the case while researching another Images of America book, Breakheart Reservation, released in 2013. Time and again, people asked about a murder that had occurred more than 100 years earlier, well before the 600-acre reservation became state property in 1934.

On October 8, 1900, the caretaker of a gentlemen’s farm in Saugus called Breakheart Hill Farm, an unpleasant man by the name of George Bailey, disappeared. A few days later, a burlap bag containing his dismembered torso floated to the surface of a pond in Lynn, followed by the remaining body parts in more ghastly bags dredged up by police teams. Before long an arrest was made, followed by a trial in Salem. Throughout the court proceedings, no lurid detail escaped the daily newspapers – or the trial transcript which is now online – providing extraordinary insights for the authors.

“These sources allowed us to tell the story using the actual words of the people involved,” Heath and Simcox say in their Preface. To do this they bend the narrative into well-paced modern crime writing, complete with dialogue, while remaining faithful to the inevitable uncertainties of the lives they depict. As part of the story, they weave a fascinating historical tapestry whose landscape is familiar today but whose inhabitants are no longer known. Readers follow the movements of itinerant tradesmen shifting among jobs, part-time farmers in Saugus selling milk to Lynn, orphans and widows sent to the almshouse, and factory owners able to buy large tracts of nearby land. There are immigrants from the Maritimes hoping to find work in Lynn, while laboring families struggle to survive in the changing shoe industry — all captured by the tabloid press of 1900.

Heath and Simcox have special expertise in uncovering historical photographs. Grainy black and white images of stiff collared men and tight waisted women, unexpectedly caught up in the case, are supplemented by newspaper drawings that illustrate the blow by blow reports published daily to satisfy horrified readers who devoured the papers — the social media of the day. Little has changed; personal photos and heinous plots still intrigue us. Who really was the murderer? Was justice served? That is for readers to decide, ideally with a map at hand to follow the course of this remarkable story not far from the Fells. Recommended winter reading!

Signed copies of Murder at Breakheart Hill Farm, as well as of Heath and Simcox’s prior books about Lake Quannapowitt, Breakheart Reservation, and Middlesex Fells, may be ordered via email (simcoxheath@msn.com) or phone (781-640-7881). The cost is $20 for the first book and $15 for each additional copy, with $3 per volume if postage is needed. The authors will deliver books within 20 miles free of charge. Cash or checks are accepted.

Anita is a Friends of the Fells board member and long time volunteer in the Fells.

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