Jeffrey MacDonald is in prison serving three life terms for the murders he committed in 1970 of his wife and their two daughters while they were sleeping in their home in Ft. Bragg, an Army base in North Carolina. In 1975, when my family moved in around the corner from the MacDonald house, this was still an open case. But everyone knew MacDonald house was different. For one thing, it was a crime scene under investigation. Nothing in the house had been touched since the night of the murders. Moms whispered details “… plates and cups still on the table … a tiny handprint …” And on a street alive with blooming gardens, sprinklers, and Tupperware parties, 544 Castle was the house where the blinds stayed down, the lights stayed off, and weeds sprang from gaps in the walkway.
Eavesdropping on my teenaged babysitter, I learned that the mother plus both girls had been beaten and stabbed—though the dad had escaped, and the killers (the theory was that it had been a Charles Manson-style crime) were still “out here.” We called it “The Murder House,” and a major truth-or-dare win was to trespass the property and collect proof—a toadstool or a bunch of tiny white starflowers that grew wild at the MacDonald’s front stoop.
At age five, I was too young to understand the tragedy of the murders. I just wanted to see a ghost. And I couldn’t imagine anything sadder than sister ghosts. While some of the older kids quaked, I hoped to catch a sound of sobbing, or a whisper-whisper. One afternoon, after a Southern thunderstorm that turned the air muggy and fragrant, I decided to pay a visit all by myself.
This was the year I liked to wear my tap shoes. I clickity-clacked down Shaw Street and then shortcut the large open field to Castle. The grass was slippery, I slid and skated as the house came into view before—yank! twist!—I tripped and fell flat on the wet grass. My shoe’d caught in a rain gutter, and now my shoe (plus foot) was wedged between its iron bars. The more I struggled to get free, the sharper the pain. Nobody was nearby; guttered rainwater was more eerie than ghostly wailing.
I cried for help and in a panic it crossed my mind that the house wasn’t finished, it needed to swallow up another girl, and its stillness had been its secret waiting for me. And now I could scream myself hoarse, but I was no match for its will. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably closer to a couple of minutes, I found my solution, to unbuckle the shoe strap and extract first foot, then shoe, from the grate. And then I ran home as fast as my shaking legs could take me.
My ankle was fine—not even a sprain, but my trauma didn’t mend as quickly. I never returned to the MacDonald house, and my stomach wrenched anytime I heard new gossip about it. But that afternoon, I’d heard the sound of ghosts in my own unheard cry for help. Even to this day, I associate 544 Castle Drive with a memory more appropriate to the horrific events that transpired there—the helpless terror of entrapment with nobody to rescue me, or even to hear me scream.
Causes Adele Griffin Supports
Brooklyn Historical Society
Harlem Village Academies
Boys Latin School of Philadelphia