A well-to-do Lake Springs matron, Mrs. Marion C. Huneker, 30, after leaving a farewell note addressed to her husband, Mr. Jack L. Huneker, 36, president of the local Huneker Concrete Block & Ornamental Iron Co., fatally shot her two small children and herself last night.
I cannot stand it any longer. I don’t belong and neither do my children.
Television is more important than we are. Everything is nothing.
Every day the walls move in closer and closer and I am being smothered.
My life goes on in the same way no matter how I try. This is the
only way I know to change it.
Although I may not go to Heaven, at least my two babies
will go before they have sinned in the eyes of God.
After reading the suicide note the distraught and bewildered husband began a frantic search for his two children.
He found his daughter, Kathy, 6, beneath her bed where she had evidently tried to hide from her mother. The child was dead.
Mr. Huneker’s son, Antonio, 8, was not inside the house. The husband continued his search outside and found the boy in a treehouse in the backyard that overlooked the lake. The treehouse had been built a few weeks ago by Antonio and other members of his Cub Scout Pack No. 8. The light of a small pencil flashlight shining in the branches of the tree attracted Mr. Huneker to the treehouse. There was blood on the cross-board steps leading up to the crude structure, and Detective Riddell surmised that the boy was probably shot elsewhere, and then climbed to the treehouse platform to die. When his father found him, Antonio was dead.
Mr. Huneker could give the police no reason for the murder-suicide. His wife had not shown any signs of despondency, and had been looking forward eagerly to the party they had planned for the weekend.
The family had eaten dinner early, Mr. Huneker stated, and his wife had been in good spirits during the meal and afterwards. When he left the house after dinner to go downtown, Mrs. Huneker had been singing in the kitchen to herself, he said. Both of his children had been watching their favorite television program, "The Restless Gun."
According to neighbors, the late Mrs. Huneker was very active in the community. She was the Den Mother of Cub Scout Pack No. 8, and a member of the Jaycees’ Wives Club, The Beachcomber’s Club, The Lake Shore Home & Garden Club, and on the Flower Arranging Committee of The Beachcomber’s Club. She was enrolled in the Creative Writing class at the Adult Education Center, and was also a member of the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart.
One neighbor stated that she and Mrs. Huneker had gone to the courthouse a few months back to register for jury duty, but that neither of them had served as yet. The same neighbor said that she had collaborated with Mrs. Huneker on a letter to the City Commission a few weeks ago complaining about the inadequate lighting system along Lake Shore Drive.
Without rereading the copy I gathered the four double-spaced, typed sheets of paper together and took them into the Managing Editor’s office. J.C. Curtis, the Managing Editor of the Lake Springs Morning News and Evening Press (yes, both papers), picked up his soft, crumbly, No. 1 pencil and snatched rudely for the copy.
I considered this a grievous fault of J.C.’s, but I imagine all M.E.’s are about the same. They can’t read anything without a pencil in their hand. As I stood patiently beside J.C.’s desk I could visualize this little guy in his lonely hotel room, his pencil clutched in his fingers, reading a Gideon Bible—crossing out this word, substituting a better one, scratching through inept sentences, and cutting the long paragraphs down to size. His size.
J.C. Curtis held the unshakable opinion that no paragraph could possibly be longer than three sentences. And if a sentence happened to be overly long, he delivered a dull, standard lecture about it. I had had several of these.
The M.E. marked the first paragraph for a two-column, ten-point lead, and flicked in new paragraph angles with his soft pencil as he read. He raised his head and glared at me through the top half of his bifocals with a baffled look of stupefaction on his narrow face.
"I’ll swear to God, Hudson," he said impatiently, "I just don’t know about you sometimes. I don’t know whether you write this way to make me sore, or whether you really don’t know any better."
"What’s the matter this time?" I said sullenly.
"This beautiful little gem," he said mordantly. " ‘If I had known Mrs. Huneker was going to shoot herself and her two children I wouldn’t have sold them to her.’ " He said this with an air of outraged piety, and I had to laugh.
"That’s exactly what he said," I grinned.
"I don’t doubt it, but can’t you see that it makes that poor salesman sound like a damned fool?"
"He is a damned fool."
"You don’t have to prove it to the public. Let them find out for themselves. And besides, the Outdoor Sporting Equipment is an advertiser." His pencil blackened the offending quote.
The next line to go was the neighbor’s remark concerning the drafting of a letter to the city commissioners. I didn’t particularly care, but I did wonder why. "Does a letter complaining about poor lighting make a fool out of the neighbor?"
"This is an obvious lie." J.C. shrugged. "You were around asking questions, and she saw an opportunity to get in a bad word for the street lights, that’s all. You’re skeptical enough about some things, Hudson, but this is a manifest case of gullibility, and you ought to know better."
"That’s the truth, Mr. Curtis. The lighting really could be improved along Lake Shore Drive. The street lights in that section are three and four blocks apart."
"In that case, it’s an item for the editorial page, not for a story on suicide. Otherwise, it’ll do. Give the story to Harris and tell him to put a banner on it."
I picked up the copy and J.C. said: "And tell Harris to wait another half-hour before he puts it on the wire so Miami won’t have it in time for their first morning editions. Then come back in here, Hudson, I want to talk to you."
I relayed J.C.’s message to Harris, Morning News City Editor and Copy Chief, and watched over his hunched shoulder as he read rapidly through the copy. Without even pausing to think for a moment he quickly block-printed a banner head on a narrow strip of white paper, and paper-clipped it to the story.
The head wasn’t absolutely accurate, but set in 96 point Tempo Heavy, it would sell a lot of newspapers. And it was exactly in line with the paper’s policy to knock television at every opportunity, except when we were ignoring the medium altogether. Neither one of the papers, morning or evening, ran the local television listings, and Lake Springs had two stations. A little nervous—I’d been goofing off quite a bit lately—I drifted back to the M.E.’s office.
"Shut the door and sit down, Hudson," J.C. said, rolling his yellow pencil between his palms.
"Yes, sir." After I sat down I looked at him, but there wasn’t much to see. J.C. had one of those deadpan faces, and even when he raised his voice in violent anger, which he did once in awhile, his expression rarely changed. A small middle-aged man, he made the word "wizened" his very own. His pale bald head, ridiculously hooked nose and round thick glasses always reminded me of a lifelike, expertly stuffed falcon. Dave Finney, who used my desk in the daytime, and who was my counterpart on the Evening Press, told me once, after a racking J.C. had given him, that our joint Managing Editor resembled Henry Miller with a shrunken head. Dave was wrong, of course. J.C. Curtis was a long way from being an acephalous editor; he had been an editorial writer on the New York Sun for fifteen years before it folded. When that great paper died, the way they do sometimes for no apparent reason, our absentee publisher had hired him as Managing Editor, probably the brightest move the publisher had ever made. I don’t know why he stayed or why he appeared to be content in Lake Springs, but I don’t suppose there was too much difference for the old man between living in a hotel room in New York and living in a hotel room in Florida. Most of his waking hours were spent at the office anyway.
"What do you think personally about this case, Hudson?" J.C. said at last.
"I haven’t given it much thought, Mr. Curtis. I was pretty busy, doing a lot of running around out there and all. Just another suicide I suppose."
"There’s no such thing as just another suicide. Don’t you think there’s something peculiar about it?"
"No, sir. There isn’t any funny business here. I talked to Riddell, and he said it’s definitely murder-suicide, no question about it. Jack Huneker’s completely covered—"
"That isn’t what I mean, Hudson. I know it’s suicide, but why kill two children? Mothers don’t usually do this; it’s more common with the fathers."
"It happens all the time." I smiled. "And besides, she gave her reason in the note she left. She wanted to be sure her children would get into Heaven before they sinned. So she was evidently a religious fanatic."
"No," J.C. shook his head. "She was a Roman Catholic, and they aren’t fanatics."
"They aren’t?" I said dubiously. "Not even Father Coughlin?"
"He didn’t commit suicide. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t allow suicide. They even have a prohibition on burials, and a lot of after-death malarkey."
"I realize it’s unusual," I admitted. "I don’t know how much dough Mr. Huneker makes, but he’s got a going business with those concrete blocks, especially since they started construction on the retirement village. He’s got two cars, a convertible Impala and a Buick station wagon. They’ve got a beautiful home on the lake, and a private boat dock—"
"Then you’d say the late Mrs. Huneker had everything to live for? A well-to-do husband, two lovely children, and enough money to do practically anything she wanted. Right? And yet, a woman with all this, shoots her children and herself and blames it on TV."
"She had to give some kind of a reason. For suicides, a note of farewell is de rigueur, you know. Think of her social position, Mr. Curtis. What would all her friends at the Beachcomber’s Club think if she hadn’t left a note?"
"I’m concerned about this case, Hudson. Did you know that suicide ranks as the number nine cause of death in the United States?"
I shrugged indifferently. "I think you’re taking this too hard, Mr. Curtis. We only lost a reader, not the subscription."
"Now just listen for a minute," J.C. said calmly, not raising his voice. I nodded, and then listened. He was the Managing Editor.
"There’s an upswing trend in America, Hudson, all across the country. I’m not the first man to notice it, by any means, but the suicide rate has increased gradually ever since 1947. And you can’t pass it off due to population increase, either. Contrary to what people believe, there were damned few suicides during the Depression compared to the prosperous days we have now. Sweden, which has always been prosperous, per capita-wise, has always led in world suicide statistics, but we’re catching up fast.
"So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to dig into the reasons behind Mrs. Huneker’s murder-suicide and come up with some valid answers. It’ll make a good Sunday feature, and perhaps an entire series on suicide."
I laughed ruefully. "When do I do all this? On your time or mine?"
"You know damned well this isn’t a Guild shop; I can’t give you any overtime. But if you write something we can use, I’ll see that you get some extra money out of it. And I don’t mean space rates."
I shook my head. "It’s a waste of time, Mr. Curtis. I don’t object to digging around for dirt or scandal, if there is any, but all I could possibly find out is external information. The only person who could tell me why is Mrs. Huneker, and she’s dead.
"In fiction, I could make up all of her thoughts before suicide and come up with a plausible, readable solution, but this is the real thing. The facts of life are these: birth, living, and death. Our birth, we don’t remember. Death? We never know when or how it’s going to happen and we don’t even think about it because it’s all a little frightening. The living process, yours, mine, or Mrs. Huneker’s, is meaningless. What good would it do for me to find out what kind of toothpaste she used? Or what she did for amusement? Her life wouldn’t differ by a hair, except for her religion maybe, from any one of those useless women in her same social bracket."And suppose I did learn something scandalous? A lover, for instance, who threw her over. You couldn’t print it because Mr. Jack Huneker is an advertiser. The police say the case is closed, and I’m not interested."
"I don’t care whether you’re interested or not. It’s your assignment."
"Why not give it to Dibs Allen?"
"A sports writer? You know what I think of sports writers."
"What about Dave Finney then? He’s the journalism graduate around here. He’d eat something like this up, for Christ’s sake."
"I’ll put it another way. Do you like your job, Hudson?" J.C. snapped the question, and I didn’t like the way he said it. To my disgust my palms began to sweat.
"Sure. Sure I do, Mr. Curtis," I said quickly, hating myself for saying it. But the way he was staring at me made me realize that I was an employee, not a permanent fixture around the newspaper office.
Copyright © 1961 by Charles Willeford.