From the book The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo
Copyright (c) 2015 by Roseanne Montillo. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
A junction not far from Dorchester Avenue and Forest Street in Boston had been given the benign name of Glover’s Corner, though it had quickly acquired a disreputable reputation and was nicknamed Sodom and Gomorrah. It was an area teeming with taverns, billiard parlors, houses of ill repute, and gambling shacks. Sailors who found themselves on land for a few hours sought Glover’s Corner and the willing arms of the prostitutes who arrayed themselves at its perimeter like rotted fruit.
Glover’s Corner was not a place for the children. Instead, they headed to Savin Hill, a rocky outcrop near the beach. From there they could watch the boats and the doings of the Tuttle House, the first seaside motel in the area. Its owner, Joseph Tuttle, had renamed the place Savin Hill because of the many juniper (savin) trees that grew nearby. He thought its previous name, Old Hill, was not descriptive enough. But the trees weren’t what drew the children to the spot. They went there for the beaches, where they could splash in the waters or stroll along the banks.
On August 17, 1872, a very hot day, seven-year-old George Pratt walked leisurely across a small sandy patch of land bordering the waters. He was an unusually pale boy, and so small for his age that his mother often worried about letting him out on his own. It was so quiet that day that George thought he was alone as he began to meander near the water’s edge, stooping down every so often to collect shapeless pieces of driftwood that had washed up with the tide, shiny rocks for his collection, and empty seashells. He was so involved in his treasure hunt he did not notice the tall shape of a boy overcoming him until it was too late.
Some hours later, the authorities and local newspaper reporters picked up the story, as it had a ring of the familiar to it: the Boy Torturer had struck again, but he had not used a wooden stick to beat up his victim, as he had previously done. On this occasion he used a long sewing needle and had pierced the little boy’s limbs and genitals, drawing blood. Worse still, as the little boy pointed to his backside, the police noticed something even more disturbing: the Boy Torturer had bitten off a chunk of flesh from George’s buttocks and poured fresh seawater on the open wound; this had been done, the officers reckoned, in order to inflict additional stinging. And though he had followed his same routine, more or less, this assault was quite different because a geographical shift had occurred: it had happened not in Chelsea, as the earlier ones had, but on the beaches of South Boston.
But it was the torturer’s next victim that would give detectives the first clue into the assailant’s identity. Even though five-year-old Robert Gould was terrified during questioning, he still managed to recall something peculiar about his attacker: the big boy had a “funny” eye, he told the detectives. Funny, and as white as the marbles he played with.
JESSE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT had caused his marbled eye. He often blamed a bad batch of childhood smallpox vaccines, while Ruth Ann insisted he had suffered an infection when he was just a toddler. Either way, when strangers saw the whitish film over Jesse’s eye, they often reacted with repulsion. Some thought there was a “white lace curtain” covering the pupil, while his own father, Thomas Pomeroy, had taken such an aversion to the boy’s eye albinism that he often recoiled at his son’s face. Ruth Ann also mentioned that Thomas eventually thought of it as “the evil eye” and used his belt in an attempt to drive the devil out of Jesse. Many of the neighborhood boys and even the ones Jesse went to school with often mocked and teased him for it.
As a result, he had had very few friendships when the family lived on Bunker Hill Avenue, and that didn’t change when they moved to South Boston. Part of it was Jesse’s own fault. By age twelve, he had become so intensely withdrawn that he did not join the local games, nor did he make an effort to get to know those children beyond his own new neighborhood. Sometimes he silently appeared by the playground, as if he wanted to partake in the other kids’ games. He would mill about for a few minutes, then stare at the boys already playing an impromptu game of baseball until he finally shrugged his shoulders and, with a book in his hands, moved away to find a place of his own.
A local boy named George Thompson later acknowledged that Jesse did occasionally stay behind. He even took part in the “extravagant talk” the boys indulged in, talks of blood, scalping, and the roasting of Indians like “venison.” Thompson said the children talked in this manner because at the time Boston was in “a sea of excitement” over the awful deeds someone was perpetrating on little boys in Chelsea and South Boston. Neighborhood boys had heard the stories about the little boy who was beaten on Powder Horn Hill and another boy to be especially careful of a man with “red hair and beard.” In the fading twilight of summer, they spoke of this fiend as years later they would speak of the doings committed by Jack the Ripper, comparing the merits of their own monster to that of London.
But Jesse never contributed much to the conversations, his neighbor later recalled. For the most part he only listened. Nonetheless, one thing seemed to cheer up Jesse: a game of Scouts and Indians. He would stare spellbound as the boys took on their guises of Wild Bill, “who had killed thirty-nine Indians,” Buffalo Bill, Charlie Emmett, Texas Jack, Squirrel Cap. The Indians were often portrayed by the smaller and more defenseless children, those whose demeanor, Thompson went on, “generally deserved nothing but a good thrashing.”