Crime and Scandal

The Merry Widow Murder of 1936

On Oct. 5, 1936, Boston police got a call to the waterfront at Jeffery Field, now 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 someone without medical training had cut it up. Perhaps someone used to cutting meat, like a butcher, had done it.

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

As the entire region waited for news, another piece of the body turned up in the harbor. However, police had little solid to go on. The newspapers blared the story in headlines and callers swamped police wondering if the body belonged to a person in their life who went missing.

The Merry Widow Murder

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, not seen for 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, which left no doubt about the identity of the murder victim. They found 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 she knew. 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 worked as 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 came to pick up his mail. They had a harder time finding Lyons.

Oscar Bartolini

Bartolini’s arrest calmed the city as the 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.

Oscar Bartolini

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. Maybe Bartolini had entered the picture after Lyons had done the killing and only helped with destroying evidence.

Massachusetts Gov. James Michael Curley

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: did prosecutors target Bartolini 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 Gov. James Michael Curley 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.

Pardon

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, no one ever heard from Lyons again,. That left open the question: Was he an accomplice in the murder or a second, undiscovered victim?

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

This story was updated in 2022.

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