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The Merry Widow Murder of 1936

On October 5, 1936, police got a call to the waterfront at Boston’s Logan Airport. Two men had found a bag in the water. When they opened it, out fell a woman’s leg. Police didn’t yet know it, but the call marked the beginning of the notorious merry widow murder.

In 1936 a leg wasn’t much evidence to go on to build a murder investigation, but it was all the police had. The police and medical examiner developed a profile of the victim: a woman, brunette, between 25 and 40 and petite. The nature of the wound to the leg suggested it had not been made by someone with medical training, but perhaps by someone used to cutting meat, like a butcher.

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Oscar Bartolini led to court. Photo: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Library

As the entire region waited for news, another piece of the body turned up in the harbor. However, there was little solid to go on. The newspapers were blaring the story in headlines and police were swamped with calls from people wondering if the body belonged to someone in their life who was missing.

It would be several days of filtering through calls until police got their first real lead: a call from Weymouth, Mass. The limited description of the body matched Grayce Asquith, who had not been seen in several days. Grayce was a widow. An insurance policy from her husband had left her comfortable. She was attractive – a part time model, even. And she liked to party. In fact, Grayce liked to party so much her neighbors and friends dubbed her the merry widow of Weymouth.

Police visited Grayce’s home on Whitman Pond, and there was no longer any doubt who the murder victim was. There was blood throughout the house, and evidence that the murderer had tried to dispose of some of the body down the drains. There was also a bare footprint in the blood.

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Grayce Asquith. Photo: Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library

Rumors circulated that Grayce had a black book with the names of prominent gentlemen friends that she had known. But Grayce’s friends stuck up for her. She was a decent woman who just like socializing.

The trail of Grayce’s acquaintances eventually led to two men: John Lyons and Oscar Bartolini. Lyons was Grayce’s boyfriend, a disabled veteran who was a salesman. Bartolini was a chef and handyman who worked occasionally at Grayce’s house.

Police set out searching for both men, but both had disappeared. Bartolini surfaced first – police apprehended him at the post office when he was picking up his mail. Lyons was harder to find.

News that Bartolini had been arrested calmed the city and physical evidence mounted. Materials used to tie up the body parts matched material found in Bartolini’s old apartment. And the bloody footprint matched Bartolini’s foot.

Grayce’s lawyer came forward with more detail: Grayce had contacted him about Bartolini. He had once assaulted her, the lawyer said, but Grayce had decided against pressing charges. With the noose tightening around Bartolini’s neck, his defense began searching for Lyons. If there was any hope, they had to have an accomplice or at least a plausible theory that Bartolini had entered the picture after Lyons had done the killing and only helped with destroying evidence.

Late October, the harbor finally gave up one more piece of evidence: Grayce’s head was found in another bag. The showdown was set for a trial that held Massachusetts spellbound. But skeptics remained: was Bartolini targeted because he was an Italian immigrant? Where was Lyons? A jury, swayed by the physical evidence, convicted Bartolini of murder. A date was set for his execution, but the governor grew wary. Lyons had never surfaced and if the wrong man was executed there was no fixing it; he commuted the sentence to life in prison.

In 1961, 25 years after the murder, Foster Furcalo, Massachusetts’ first Italian-American governor, pardoned Bartolini. Bartolini's long-time supporters believed he had only helped remove and dismember Grayce’s body because he was afraid of the real killer: Lyons. For his part, Lyons was never heard from again, leaving open the question: was he an accomplice in the murder or a second, undiscovered victim?

Once released from prison, Bartolini was immediately arrested by immigration officials and deported to his native Italy.

One comment

  1. Vicky Lacaire-durant

    I have read this before, I was always fascinated by it. I think they the last opinion the right one, I think Bartolini helped out!!!

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