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.”

When Ohio Outlawed Seduction

Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images
Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images

"Hot for Teacher" may have been a major hit for Van Halen back in 1984, but the very idea of a personal relationship between teacher and student—regardless of age—was nothing to sing about for Ohio lawmakers back in the 19th century. On April 22, 1886, the Buckeye State passed a law that made it illegal for any man over the age of 21 to put the moves on a woman he was instructing. Those who dared try would face the possibility of spending up to a decade in the clink.

To be clear, while the statute quite rightly made it illegal for an adult male teacher to engage in an inappropriate relationship with one of his young students, the wide latitude of the law went far beyond that, stating:

A male person over twenty-one years of age, who is superintendent, tutor or teacher in a private, parochial or public school, or seminary or other public institution, or instructor of any female in music, dancing, roller skating, athletic exercise, or any branch of learning, who has sexual intercourse, at any time or place, with any female, with her consent, while under his instruction during the term of his engagement as superintendent, tutor or instructor, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not more than ten years nor less than two.

Translate that to today's standards and what it means is that, even if you're an unmarried thirty-something looking for Mr. Right, you'd be wise to keep your hands off your personal trainer, lest he be arrested for reciprocating your romantic interests. (And yes, the same goes for your roller skating instructor.)

But Ohio was hardly the first state to pass such a law. In Virginia, dangling the prospect of marriage as a way to get some nookie was a no-no with "any unmarried female of previous chaste character" and again punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (The lawmakers were generous enough to note that the "chastity of the female shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.") New York instituted a similar law in 1848, but considered the crime a misdemeanor (whereas Virginia classified it as a felony).

Georgia, too, had a seduction law, which reads very Jackie Collins-esque with phrases like "induce her to yield to his lustful embraces" and "allow him to have carnal knowledge of her." Any man charged with the crime had one of two choices: take his chances in court and risk spending two to 20 years in prison—or marry the gal! The written law noted that, "The prosecution may be stopped at any time by the marriage of the parties, or a bona fide and continuing offer to marry on the part of the seducer." Which was certainly one way to snag a husband!

The Kansas Land That Once Belonged to the Bloody Benders, America’s First Serial Killer Family, Is Up for Auction

tomofbluesprings, iStock via Getty Images
tomofbluesprings, iStock via Getty Images

A tract of land up for auction in Kansas features rolling views, tillable soil, and a history of some of the most infamous murders ever committed in the state. As the Salina Journal reports, the 162-acre property was once home to the Bloody Benders, the four-person unit considered by many to be America's first serial killer family.

John Bender Sr.; his wife, Mary; their daughter, Kate; and their son John Jr. claimed a parcel of land in what is now Labette County, Kansas in 1870. Their site sat near the Great Osage Trail, and the home they built there doubled as an inn were travelers could rest and replenish their supplies.

Many of the Benders' guests were never heard from again. But given the risks of pioneer life, such disappearances weren't unusual. The family was able to evade suspicion for years, and it wasn't until a popular doctor named William York went missing in 1873 that the Benders were questioned.

Before investigators could complete a thorough search of the Bender home, its four residents fled. It didn't take authorities long to discover why: A trap door in the building's floor revealed a cellar that was soaked with blood. Buried in the garden, they found York's body with his head caved in and his throat slit. Around 11 bodies in total were ultimately discovered on the property, but it's suspected the Benders were responsible for up to 21 murders.

The house where the killers lured in their victims and committed their crimes was demolished decades ago, but the land where it once stood is now up for sale. The property is labeled as "Farm 2" and "Tract 9″ in a listing of 15 Kansas tracts going to auction later this month. According to the listing, it has "152.23+/- acres of tillable land per FSA," and "Primary soil types include Wagstaff Silty Clay Loam, Kenoma Silt Loam and Parsons Silt Loam."

Buyers could end up getting more than they pay for. According to the manager of the auction house, modern technology likely hasn't been used to scan the land for undiscovered bodies since the initial victims were found in the 1870s.

The public auction will take place at the Cardinal Event Center in Parsons, Kansas, at 6 p.m. on February 11. And if you'd like to do your research before purchasing a grisly murder site, the tract will be open for inspection between 2 and 5 p.m. on February 10.

[h/t Salina Journal]

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