The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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6 Bizarre Halloween-Related Lawsuits

Halloween scares can sometimes invite legal action.
Halloween scares can sometimes invite legal action.
inhauscreative/iStock via Getty Images

For most people, Halloween is a time to be someone other than themselves and enjoy a party atmosphere. But occasionally, those relaxed inhibitions can result in legal trouble. Take a look at several strange cases involving costume malfunctions, collapsing pumpkins, and other spooky court filings.

1. An Inflammatory Situation

Homemade Halloween costumes carry risks.hudiemm/iStock via Getty Images

In 1984, Michigan natives Frank and Susan Ferlito attended a Halloween party. Susan was dressed as Mary of Mary and Her Little Lamb fame; Frank was her animal sidekick. Susan achieved Frank's lamb look by gluing cotton batting made by Johnson & Johnson to his long underwear, effectively covering him in flammable material from head to toe. For reasons known only to Frank Ferlito, he decided to light a cigarette using a butane lighter. His left arm was set ablaze, and Frank suffered burns on over a third of his body.

The coupled sued Johnson & Johnson. In 1989, a jury awarded Frank Ferlito $555,000 and Susan Ferlito $70,000. In 1991, Johnson & Johnson was successful in petitioning for a new trial, in part because the Ferlitos had each admitted to knowing that cotton would burn if it was exposed to flames. While the plaintiffs argued that the cotton didn’t have a warning, Frank also admitted he ignored the warnings on cigarette packages, meaning it wouldn't have altered their behavior. A Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of Johnson & Johnson in 1992.

2. A Rotten Inflatable Pumpkin

Inflatable pumpkins should not be used as shelter.peterspiro/iStock via Getty Images

For years, Milwaukee resident Jon Majdoch enjoyed a brisk seasonal business operating a number of temporary Halloween shops named Halloween Express. The “shops” were actually housed underneath a giant, 100-foot diameter inflatable pumpkin. Though high winds had once blown one along a freeway, there were no major issues. In 2017, however, Majdoch custom ordered a smaller inflatable pumpkin so that he could set up a smaller store in the parking lot of a home goods store. The item came from Larger Than Life Inflatables and another company, House of Bounce, assembled it. One day, it rained so hard that water pooled on top of the pumpkin and prompted it to collapse. No one was injured, but Majdoch’s inventory was ruined. His insurance company, Hastings Mutual, paid out a six-figure policy and sued both Larger Than Life Inflatables and House of Bounce alleging manufacturing defects. The litigation is ongoing.

3. The Eyes Have It

Cosmetic contact lenses are illegal to sell without a prescription.sdominick/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re considering wearing cosmetic contact lenses for Halloween, you might want to rethink that decision. A number of retailers have faced lawsuits from state attorney generals and consumers owing to eye damage caused by the non-prescription lenses. In 2016, Missouri attorney general Chris Koster filed a lawsuit against Gotcha Costume Rental for selling the lenses without a prescription, a violation of both state and federal laws. (Gotcha Costume Rental owner Aaro Froese agreed to comply with the law and only sell contacts to customers with prescriptions.) The lenses, which may not fit properly, can scratch the cornea and cause infection or even blindness. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) routinely offers a consumer warning that contacts are medical devices and should never be worn unless prescribed by an eye care professional.

4. Banana Appeal

The banana costume has been the subject of multiple lawsuits.sdominick/iStock via Getty Images

With dozens of costume makers all over the world making every kind of costume imaginable, it’s easy to find similar products on store racks. But in the case of the banana costume, it turns out they may still be subject to copyright law. In 2017, costume manufacturer Rasta Imposta sued a number of companies, including Kmart and Kangaroo Manufacturing, for selling a banana costume they felt was infringing on their own. Citing things like the color and shape of the costume, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed, affirming in 2019 that Rasta Imposta’s banana was distinctive. In its ruling, the court wrote that the company was “entitled to the veritable fruits of its intellectual labor.”

5. Fright Night

You can sue a haunted house for scaring you, but you probably won't have a very convincing argument.darkbird77/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to liability waivers, it's notoriously difficult to sue haunted houses for delivering what they promise: a good scare. In 2011, Scott Griffin and friends went to The Haunted Trail, a haunted attraction in San Diego, California. When Griffin reached the exit, he thought it was over. Instead, a man wielding a chainsaw moved toward him aggressively, catching Griffin by surprise and prompting him to run away—then fall and injure his wrist. Griffin sued the operators but couldn’t find any satisfaction. A trial court ruled in favor of the defendant, with the 4th District Court of Appeal affirming the ruling in 2015. It was, the judges determined, a case of someone paying money to experience “extreme fright” and receiving “exactly what he paid for.”

6. Spider Man

It's not acceptable to open fire on fake spiders in an office setting.abzee/iStock via Getty Images

While this Halloween tale didn’t result in a lawsuit, it did affect a few attorneys in West Virginia. In 2015, Logan County assistant prosecutor Chris White reacted (some might say overreacted) to a small army of fake spiders that had been strung up for Halloween by pulling a gun and insisting that he was going to begin shooting the replicas. Logan County prosecuting attorney John Bennett was forced to suspend White over the incident, explaining that White really hates spiders and that the gun wasn’t actually loaded. The spider decorations were eventually removed.