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Excerpt: 'We Keep the Dead Close' Explores a 1969 Murder at Harvard

Author Becky Cooper's obsessive search for an archaeology student's long-ago killer

spinner image author becky cooper and her new book titled we keep the dead close a murder at harvard and a half century of silence
Lily Erlinger / Grand Central Publishing / AARP

Becky Cooper was a recent Harvard grad when she was gripped by a whispered-about mystery at her alma mater. In 1969 a young archaeology graduate student, Jane Britton, was found brutally murdered in her apartment. We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence, a must-read for true-crime junkies, is Cooper's story of her own obsessive search for answers.

The author spent 10 years seeking out suspects — so many seemed plausible — interviewing anyone who knew Britton, digging up police reports and running into frustrating dead ends while reconstructing the young woman's life up to that terrible night on Jan. 7, 1969. And, yes, she does finally learn the surprising truth about what happened.

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Dive into this gripping story — its first chapters are excerpted below.

Morning of Generals

It was the warmest it had been in more than a week, but Bostonians turning on their morning radio broadcast woke up to gale warnings along the coast. In Cambridge, across the Charles River, the day was equally grim. A wintry mix of fog and rain and snow hung over the city, and the streets of Harvard Square were quiet.

A delivery person piled stacks of that day's Harvard Crimson inside the undergraduate houses. The front page was a black-and-white picture of a girl curled up in fetal position on the floor of one of the campus libraries. Her head was propped on a book. Her feet were bare. She had on jeans and a sweater and looked more like a body than a person. The caption read, “There was the girl who fell asleep on her book and dreamed, and there was the boy who dreamed of the girl asleep on her book, and . . . Don't let the times get you down."

January 7, 1969, was the second day of reading period. For most students, with eleven anxious, prolonged days to study before finals, those first mornings were for sleeping. But for a subset of the anthropology doctoral students, that morning was the most nerve-racking one all year.

By 9 a.m., they were packed into a lecture hall at the top of the Peabody Museum. The five-story red-brick building with its grand European-style black doors served as home base for the university's Anthropology department. Founded in 1866, the museum's history as an institution, its docents proudly remind visitors, is the history of American anthropology.

The students were there to take the first of three parts of their general exams. They had been studying for months, and the stakes were high. If they failed, they risked getting moved off the PhD track into a “terminal” master's, a gloved way of saying “kicked out."

The museum sometimes smelled like the mummies casually stored on its fourth floor: spicy and musty, though not altogether revolting. But that winter morning, all the smells had stilled. Now it was just elbows propped on desks, hands moving across blue books, pens filling in short-answer essays. Between the nerves and the number of students, only a few people noticed that one student had failed to show up: Jane Britton.

2018: Apthorp House

My room is on the third floor of a mansion called Apthorp House, a part of Harvard's Adams House dorms. Apthorp, shaped like a wedding cake, is jonquil, that distinctly New England shade of daffodils and buttercream. My bedroom is a cross between a bunker and a tree house, and the ceilings are so low I regularly hit my overhead lamp when I throw my hands up excitedly. From the front door, I can see the room I lived in my sophomore year, as well as the fire escape I used to climb when I locked myself out of that room. It's the same rickety ladder a crush surprised me by scaling that fall. The same landing I sat out on and listened to sad Bob Dylan and wished I smoked when things ended a month later. Some days I catch myself forgetting that ten years have gone by.

Apthorp, everyone agrees, is haunted, and we're pretty sure the ghost is General Burgoyne, a British officer who was held captive in the house during the Revolutionary War. We have, inexplicably, a life-size cutout of him in the basement. I can't decide whether it's a joke or an educational tool — And here you have the boots that make those clomping sounds — but there's a touch of cruelty in his continued entrapment.

I share Apthorp with the faculty deans of Adams House who are in charge of house life — dances, the housing lottery, the annual Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas read — as well as three recent Harvard graduates. The four of us are called Elves, which means we get room and board in exchange for baking cookies for the undergraduates’ monthly teas. It makes about as much sense to me as it does to you, but it's one of those quirks you get used to at Harvard. Like Norm the French translator with a cotton-candy puff of hair who graduated from Harvard in 1951 and never really left Adams House; or Father George, a fixture in the dining hall for reasons I don't quite understand, who seems to have as many degrees in the hard sciences as he has jokes. Of course, you quickly learn you have to say.

Elves are usually students straight out of graduation. So when Lulu, one of the other Elves, heard I was turning thirty this year, she looked at me like a messenger from the other side. “Is it true,” she started in her super-earnest tone, “that when you turn thirty, all your friends leave you because they get married, and your body falls apart?” I hugged my knees, bandaged from a fall that afternoon, to my chest. “Mhmm,” I nodded to Lulu.

Boston, especially Harvard Square, is a transient place, remade every fall when a new wave of people washes through. The heavy brick of the buildings only emphasizes the impermanence of everything here but the institution itself. When I told friends in Brooklyn that I was moving back to Boston, one quipped, “Does anyone do that voluntarily?"

I hadn't. When the undergraduates ask, I tell them that I'm here writing a book about archaeology in the 1960s. “Anything in particular,” they ask, eager to make some kind of connection. “Not really,” I say. “Oh, cool,” they say, meaning, You left your job for this?

I don't tell them what I'm working on because I'm unwilling to turn it into small talk. It's too weird, too obsessive, too personal. I don't tell them about the bulletin boards in my tree-house room with theories and photos, a map of Iran, a blueprint of an apartment building, all stuck to my cork boards with dissection needles. I don't mention my shelf topped with talismans — a sherd of milky Ramah chert; Kodachrome slides of a farm out in Bolton; a profile gauge for drawing pottery. I try to laugh off the ribbed metal baton on my key chain when it clunks on the dining-hall table. I definitely don't mention that a Harvard police officer gave it to me and taught me how to wrap my fingers around it and lift it over my shoulder, ready to jam down in the soft triangle of flesh between someone's clavicle and shoulder blade, like an ice pick.

I'm here because, for the past ten years, I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: A young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect re-creation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved.

Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

Excerpted from the book WE KEEP THE DEAD CLOSE: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence by Becky Cooper. Copyright © 2020 by Becky Cooper. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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