On April 2, 1989, Emily Stuart, 74, was murdered at her home in Princeton, N.J. She was found in the cellar of her house by her sister, stabbed five times in the back with a knife. The wooden door leading from the cellar to the back yard, a door she always kept open, was padlocked shut.
Her son, five-time Emmy Award-winning news veteran Charles Stuart, who has produced documentaries such as PBS’ “Don King Unauthorized” and “Hunger in America,” offers a personal look at his mother’s life and death in the HBO “American Undercover” documentary, “My Mother’s Murder.”
Emily Stuart, known as Cissy, was a well-respected member of the community. She had lived in Princeton for 63 years, 36 of them at her Victorian house on Mercer Street. Divorced in 1968, Stuart had two sons--Jeb, who operates the family newspaper, Town Topics, and Charles, who lives with his family in Concord, Mass.
Her murder is still unsolved. The family offered a $25,000 reward that was later increased to $50,000. Because the cellar door was locked, it was suggested by the police and acquaintances of the Stuarts that the murderer must have known Cissy and was familiar with the house. Town gossip even implicated her children in the murder.
Later in 1989, Princeton was besieged by a series of knife assaults. In 1990, a Haitian refugee was sentenced to 20 years for those assaults. The police and the prosecutors have never revealed if the man is a suspect in the Stuart case.
Charles Stuart talked about “My Mother’s Murder” with Times Staff Writer Susan King.
Were you shocked that many people suspected both you and your brother?
No matter how high the crime rate grows, people’s fear of crime is always higher because the press and politicians prey on it.
It became evident to me (there) is a tendency to blame the victim of the crime or somebody close to it because (it makes) you feel safe. It is shocking, but I understand it. I can’t blame people for wanting to be safe. It is idle town gossip. It is horrible, but I understand the motivation, so I accept it even though I may not like it.
Didn’t you feel angry over your mother’s death and the townspeople’s accusations?
My anger was so immense that I had to stop and recognize that my anger really was a manifestation of my sadness. I had to watch my anger and I had to realize that I had to deal with the sadness that was very, very profound.
Anger is something that is a very easy, quick, reflective reaction. I wrote a piece in the New York Times a month after it happened and it was filled with anger. This (documentary) is not, except at the end where I suddenly realized what I felt was anger, this overwhelming sense that people may be interested in my mother’s murder, but people might not have cared.
It drove me crazy the press was feeding off of this, the town was gossiping and there was a possibility that at the end no one really cared. That is why I wanted to make this film. Her death and her life had to matter. It just couldn’t be this unexplained violent act that just was a headline.
So did making the documentary help you get through her death?
It helped me deal with my pain, but that was not an overriding reason for doing this. I think that is a very selfish reason to go do something like this.
I wanted people to know who my mother was because she was such an extraordinary woman. I honestly believe that they will be able to learn from the examples she set for me.
(She was) a very strong, highly principled woman who kept to very high standards and expected no less of anyone else, somebody who had the courage to face life and look people in the eye and would have looked death in the face if she had been given the opportunity to do that.
I think if we have more of a sense of who we are and who the people are around us in our community and be actively involved in the community as my mother was, that is the very heart of what we are all about. It is a very reflective hour.
You have said that your family didn’t show their emotions. Yet you seemed to have found your emotions while making the documentary. Did it change you?
Absolutely. It made me much more reflective. You look at the world in a different way when you no longer have parents alive. I see pictures of my parents in their 40s with young kids and I say, ‘That is me. I am only here for a short time and I will try to do the best I can while I am here.’ You get a real sense of your own mortality.
It will be very sad for me when this is run by HBO because it means it will be over. I am going to have to put it rest. It was a way of staying close with my mother.
“America Undercover: My Mother’s Murder” airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. and Friday at 12:45 a.m. on HBO.