The exchange between former Marblehead Select Board member Harry Christensen and the lawyer-turned-author began cordially enough.
The author had already written one book about a Massachusetts murder and told Christensen that he was toying with the idea with making the killing of Marblehead elementary school teacher Beryl Atherton his next subject.
“Don’t bother,” Christensen told him. “My book is already well underway.”
Technically, that was not untrue. After giving countless lectures on the topic over years, Christensen had essentially written the book about the still-unsolved crime that shook the serenity of his hometown in 1950. The only problem was that it lived mainly in Christensen’s brain.
Enter Richard Santeusanio.
The former Danvers school superintendent, Santeusanio was Christensen’s “boss” in Christensen’s prior professional life as a special education teacher, and nearly 50 years later, Christensen now refers to Santeusanio as “my best friend.”
Santeusanio, who retired in 2015 after serving as the coordinator of the reading certificate program at MGH Institute of Health Professions, had done some publishing in the education field, and the two friends had kicked around the idea of collaborating on an Atherton book over the years.
But they got a needed jolt from the thought that someone else might tell the story that had held Christensen’s fascination for decades – to the point where he made an annual ritual of surveilling the scene each year on the crime’s anniversary, hoping the killer might show up, too.
“That got us motivated,” Santeusanio says. “From then, we really started researching in earnest and moving ahead with it all.”
Their book seeks to do more than merely recount Atherton’s demise. Rather, if Santeusanio and Christensen have their way, the book is just the first step in creating a crowd-sourced cold case unit.
All of the clues are laid before the reader – the autopsy report, the minute details of the murder scene, the victim’s background, and the collective wisdom of the townspeople who might have known something or seen something.
The main thing that has always stumped investigators is the motive for Atherton’s murder, though the brutality of the crime suggests a crime of passion, rather than something like a botched robbery.
There is also one big clue that points to someone known to Atherton being the murderer: the apparent murder weapon, a bone-handled bread knife, was returned to its rightful place in a chest of drawers in the kitchen.
Santeusanio and Christensen do conclude by offering three of their own theories of who committed the crime. But they are open to – and even excited about – the possibility that some set of fresh eyes might take the investigation off in a whole new direction.
In fact, it has already happened.
“My next door neighbor just stopped me to tell his theory, which has nothing to do with any of ours,” Santeusanio says.
Even Christensen has revised his view of the likeliest suspect over the years. In his talks, Christensen tended to allude coyly to the idea that he had a main suspect whose name he would keep confidential until the person was no longer alive.
Now, after reviewing all of the research he had done since 1972, including notes that he had taken during interviews at coffee shops and gas stations with “anyone who was willing to talk with me about it,” he has changed his tune.
The easiest way readers can share their theories is by clicking the “Contact Us” link on murderinmarblehead.com, Santeusanio adds.
Atherton, a fifth-grade teacher at Glover School, was 47 years old and weighed only about 100 pounds when she was murdered.
“Everyone thought she was very shy and very provincial,” Christensen says.
But there was another side to Atherton, who never married but did date – even some married men – hoping for a proposal that never came.
As is recounted in the book, these were the days when you needed an operator’s help to complete phone calls. Known as the “Hello Girls,” the operators were intrigued enough to periodically listen in on her phone calls, Santeusanio says.
“But the Hello Girls unfortunately did not help the police at all,” he says.
Christensen, who in addition to the Select Board held a seat on the town’s Retirement Board until health issues made getting up to Abbot Hall difficult, says he misses being a town official, having long viewed it as an extension of the service he provided his country.
“But old age and my Vietnam wounds have just curtailed that for me,” Christensen says. “So it was the perfect time for me to be able to meet with Richard, my best man, and my best friend, to get this done – finally!”
Christensen and Santeusanio will be signing copies “Murder in Marblehead” at Arnould Gallery, 111 Washington St., during the Christmas Walk from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3 and Sunday, Dec. 4.