Murder in Morningside Heights: Louise Wright (1990)

Among the dozens of homicides that I’ve researched and written about over the years, there is a Berkshire murder that has haunted me in a particularly proximal way. It’s not the most shocking, or the most gory. There was no great mystery or sensationalist trial associated with it. It wasn’t even the most famous murder in town that year.

The 1990 slaying of Louise Wright stands out to me because it was the first time that someone I actually knew was murdered. And because it all took place barely 200 feet from me, as I slept in my childhood bedroom in an adjacent house.

I didn’t know Mrs Wright well. I’m not sure I even knew her name, until after her death. I knew her face. I had interacted with her in about the same way I interacted with any neighbors that would come upon me skulking and hiding in the wooded perimeter around my parent’s fencing- a smile and half-wave friendly enough to allay any suspicions about my meanderings, but not so friendly as to invite conversation. She had a kindly face, but that’s all I knew of her.

At 75 (I learned later), Louise was a widow living alone, after retiring from a long career working at the Elmvale Worsted Company. She was very active in the Methodist church, and a prolific poet in the local Senior Citizens Poetry Club.

Last known photo of Louise Wright (1914- 1990), smiling at the Easter bunny while waiting for a bus at Park Square, 6 months prior to her death. Berkshire Eagle, April 13, 1990

Around dinner time on a warm Friday evening in September, the avenue stretch just behind the backyard where I was lurking about began to fill up with police and emergency vehicles. More and more vehicles arrived, as uniformed officers taped off the Wright house. I first assumed some sort of accident, and even my 6th grade mind was able to process that the number of people encircling the property meant it had probably been a fatal one. Nothing more extreme ever occurred to me, on its own. The reality of homicide was not entirely abstract to me by then, but it certainly inconceivable to me there, in that seemingly safe and quiet neighborhood above Springside Avenue that I had lived in for nearly 11 years.

But life is sprinkled with such transitions in what is conceivable to us, and childhood doubly so. While it would not become public until the 11 o’clock news aired, already by twilight there was an ambient buzzing of rumor in the surrounding houses and streets, a detail-fuzzy murmur with only one clear thread: Mrs Wright had been murdered.

Thanks to prompt tips from multiple sources, including his own brother, 20 year old Mark Banister was taken into custody less than 24 hours after her body was discovered. As news and photos hit the front page of the Eagle over the coming days, it turned out to be a face that was by no means unknown among Wright’s neighbors. Mark Banister had been coming and going from the house for years in the company of Wright’s grandson, Gerald.

At Banister’s trial the following year, Gerald would testify that during that time the duo had repeatedly stolen cash, checks and jewelry from his grandmother to purchase beer, cocaine and marijuana. Banister was found with blank checks from Wright and with two of her rings on his person when he was picked up.

The trial ran for two weeks in May 1991, during which D.A. Gerard Downing and first assistant David Capeless presented mountains of damning evidence, from his blood, fingerprints and shoeprints at the scene to supporting testimony from multiple friends and associates. They maintained that Banister had methodically planned the nighttime break-in, during which he tied Wright to a chair, stabbed and then strangled her with an electrical cord. It was countered only by Banister’s dubious testimony blaming his brother and a friend, and an attempted motion by his public defender to block testing of Mark’s blood.

On May 24, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and Judge Daniel Ford sentenced Banister to life in prison without parole.

On October 6, 1998, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected an appeal by Banister for a new trial.

For me personally, it was upsetting, but not what I would call a life changing event. In itself it was not a major emotional trauma (I think?), and I went on with life more or less as I had before. Three decades later, what most stands out to me is that it was simply the first time I can remember really sitting down to read about such a thing in a local newspaper… and clipping it out.

The horrible fate of poor Mrs Wright made me perk up my ears and pay attention to local news, at a strange time when violent crime was spiking again in the region. 1990 – 1992 would see 12 people murdered in Berkshire County within a 3 year period, two thirds of them in my own town of Pittsfield. Just weeks after Louise Wright’s slaying made me pay attention, a boy my own age with whom I shared various mutual friends, vanished from another pleasant residential neighborhood across town. Only years later would we learn, in heart-breaking detail, how he had become the first known victim of a serial killer living quietly among us for years. By that time, my youthful perception of small quiet rural neighborhoods had changed considerably- and in some ways, permanently.

He Murdered His Child… And Massachusetts Let It Slide

There was a thin layer of snow to be brushed off on the small, unremarkable granite marker marked “L.S.N.” when I finally tracked it down in the Pittsfield Cemetery, and lichen grown over the name “Lawrence Swift Noxon” on the larger shared family headstone. The death of this tiny baby had been an outrage that once shook a community to its core; three-quarters century later, his name is all but forgotten. Even the location of his humble grave was mis-indexed….

Lawrence Swift Noxon was born in Pittsfield on March 30, 1943 to prominent local attorney John F. Noxon Jr and his wife Margaret “Peggy” Swift. John was the only surviving son of Mary Slosson Wadhams and John F. Noxon Sr., a former district attorney who had been considered one of the most brilliant legal minds in the county; Margaret was the daughter of esteemed local physician, Dr. Lawrence Swift.

In early September, we know John and Margaret took Lawrence to specialists in Boston. These specialists informed them that their son was “physically and mentally deficient.” Specifically, they used the term “mongoloid,” and this is the way almost every later news story and court document would refer to Lawrence Noxon. [Mongolism is a heinous, antiquated term for Down Syndrome, which served as the standard accepted terminology of the medical community until the early 1960s.]

Around dinner time on Wednesday, September 22, John Noxon phoned their physician, Dr. Hunt. There had been a terrible accident, he said.

Hunt arrived to find the 6 month old infant dead, electrocuted in an apparent freak accident.

John Noxon told the doctor he had been in his study repairing a trouble light while watching Lawrence. He had left the room to get a tool, he said, perhaps 5 minutes at most. Lawrence’s diaper was wet, so he placed him on a metal tray so he wouldn’t wet the rug. Somehow, the infant had gotten some of the wires wrapped around his arm, and electrocuted himself. There was plenty that didn’t sound right about the father’s story, but Hunt said little, summoning the medical examiner, Dr. Englund, to the scene.

The following day Dr Englund assisted Dr. Allan Moritz of Harvard Medical School, who served as senior pathologist for the State Police. On Friday, John and Margaret held a small private funeral in their home on Friday, then Lawrence was interred at Pittsfield Cemetery.

On Monday, local police arrested Noxon at his North Street office, on the charge of murder.

John Noxon never wavered in maintaining his innocence, insisting that “No matter how I felt, I could not have killed my baby.” At his trial in March, testimony from multiple physicians emphatically showed it could not have been otherwise. From the careful placement of the wires on his arm, to Lawrence’s lack of muscular capacity to have done what was described, they made it clear that the father’s story was physically impossible. His placement of the wet infant on a metal tray immediately before the incident, and his incineration of the frayed cord in question almost immediately before it could be examined were also major factors pointing to his guilt.

The trial was emotional and dramatic; at one point, the prosecution presented a modified baby doll to simulate the infant Noxon, and one juror was overcome by stress, and fainted. A mistrial was declared shortly after. In June, a second trial was launched. This time the prosecution brought blown up photos of the burns, as well as new testimony from an associate of Noxon’s that the attorney had asked him questions about electrocution 3 weeks before the murder.

“Don’t let him get away with murder!” A.D.A. Alfred Bettigole implored the jury in closing. “That little baby had a right to live, to hear simple little stories. He would have loved anybody who would have taken care of him. Life is dear to anyone. But this father, in his arrogance and false pride, didn’t want to be pointed out as the father of such a child.”

On July 6, John Noxon was found guilty of 1st degree murder. He was sentenced to death by electric chair.

New York Daily News Headline, 9/29/43

From the start, John Noxon had elicited sympathy from many people who viewed the death as a “mercy killing,” even though he never admitted to being responsible. Within the first week, the Eagle had received the first letter to the editor in support of the father’s actions, opining that attorney Noxon had done the best thing for the child, given his “mongoloid” condition. This would become a prevalent theme in this highly publicized case, a wave of sentiment that would see Noxon freed in less than 5 years, despite his initial sentence of capital punishment.

A prominent corporate attorney and the son of the former District Attorney for Springfield (which then encompassed Berkshire County under its DA), John Noxon was also not without powerful influence. His trial attorney had been a former governor of Massachusetts, Joseph Ely, who would soon begin lobbying the present governer, Maurice Tobin. Tobin commuted his sentence to life in prison in 1946. Ely continued to work on appeals, armed with no small amount of public support, and by 1948 the new governor Robert Bradford was ready to pardon him. Noxon, he said, had demonstrated his innocence by never accepting a plea deal for a lesser charge (this was hogwash for the press; no plea deal had ever been offered).

On Janaury 4, 1949, John Noxon was paroled from his life sentence after 4 1/2 years, and released.

John Noxon and his wife Margaret relocated to Connecticut, where he died in 1972 and she in 1987. He was not able to practice law, but found other work, and led apparently harmonious lives, involved in the local community in Stonington the rest of their days. Their first son, John Franklin Noxon III, went on to obtain a Phd in physics from Harvard and ultimately direct the aeronomy program at the NOAA laboratories in Boulder, Colorado prior to his death in 1985, at age 56. His eulogy in Physics Today describes him as “an adventurer and explorer throughout his scientific career,” who measured atmospheric conditions in high altitude flights ranging from South America to the North Pole, and climbed Mt. McKinley and the Nepalese Himalayas in his private life as a mountaineer.

Somehow the adventures of his brother make the life opportunities stolen from Lawrence seem that much more bitter. But perhaps such privilege is meaningless in the face of the more fundamental things that were stolen from him: the sensation just to walk in the sunshine, the taste of strawberries… the chance to feel love.

Interred alongside his paternal grandparents- Pittsfield Cemetry

Perhaps as horrifying as the act itself is the degree of validation and tacit acceptance among so many in the general public at the time. From sympathetic letters to the editor to the sheer volume of petitions from supporters filed with the governor, the murder of Lawrence Noxon was persistently depicted and treated as a “mercy killing” in popular thought. While most today would (I hope) take it as a given that a child with Down Syndrome has the potential for a life as wonderful as any other child, in the cast of this not very distant time it was seen by many as legitimate cause for euthanasia.

That’s chilling to me… and worthy of more than the scant 2 or 3 mentions the case has received in local media over the last 65 years.

On a personal note, the time taken to examine this case was revealing for me.  Recently (and, well, in general) I’ve gotten a certain amount of feedback asking why I opt to focus so much time and content on tragic, often ugly aspects of local history- amidst the beautiful natural, artistic legacy, and gilded grandeur of the Berkshires.  I rarely have a sound answer at the ready, and increasingly I don’t even respond. I apologize for that.  It’s frequently not what you would call a fun gig, and all these years after Glenn Drohan first conned me into a weird weekly newspaper column, I don’t always know why I’m still doing it.
In moments like this, all I know, all I can see or think about is that Lawrence Noxon died frightened and alone in a wet diaper, at the hands of the people in the whole world he should have been able to trust … and it was accepted.  It was allowed to go largely unpunished.  I believe we forget these facts at our own peril and very great shame.
So if you came here for brighter local memories of literary giants and grand architecture and good times at the drive-in movies, you may have to look elsewhere (there’s plenty to find). I will write the name Lawrence Noxon in such places as I can, with all of the other names that I have written through tears, and will continue to do so for as long as I am able.