A Connecticut Mom Was Slaughtered. Everyone Was a Suspect.
In the new HBO true crime docuseries “Murder on Middle Beach,” a young man investigates the unsolved murder of his mother—a Connecticut woman with plenty of secrets… and enemies.
On March 3, 2010, Barbara Hamburg was found murdered outside her home at 44 Middle Beach Road in the quiet, affluent seaside town of Madison, Connecticut. It was a slaying that shocked the region and shattered the Hamburg family, and the ensuing investigation’s failure to come up with a single potential culprit worth charging only compounded the air of mystery surrounding the crime. In an attempt to find out who committed this atrocity, Barbara’s son Madison began a documentary inquiry into the case, and the result, HBO’s riveting four-part Murder on Middle Beach, reveals a tale rife with suspects—all of them Hamburg’s closest relatives, who had varying motives for wanting to kill his mother.
It’s an intimate real-life approximation of Clue, except that in this case, solving the whodunit is only part of the story.
Murder on Middle Beach (debuting Nov. 15) details the first-person quest carried out by Madison, who was a teenager at the time of his mom’s death, and whose desire for answers leads him on an excavation of the past, rummaging around the shadows and digging beneath cheery surfaces in the hope of unearthing revelations. His quest begins with a look into the strange circumstances surrounding his father Jeffrey, a former multi-millionaire CEO of Southern Electric whose marriage to Barbara turned sour after 13 years, leading to a bitter divorce. Barbara was murdered on the morning she was due to attend court in order to send Jeffrey to jail for failure to fulfill his financial obligations to her and the kids. If that wasn’t enough to give him motive, Madison uncovers a wealth of documents (many from Barbara) suggesting that Jeffrey was involved in all sorts of shady Middle East shell-company shenanigans that may have been criminal in nature, and might have put his clan in danger.
By the end of Murder on Middle Beach’s initial episode, it seems likely that Jeffrey was somehow responsible for Barbara’s demise—especially since, when pressed by Madison, he stubbornly refuses to provide meaningful details or explanations about his behavior, thus making him look like a guilty man with much to hide. Nonetheless, Madison’s docuseries soon complicates its narrative by surveying the various ups and downs of his sister Ali, and aunts Conway and Jill. On the face of things, all three of them make for reasonable suspects, thanks to the sorts of thorny conflicts and resentments found in many families. Consequently, Madison finds himself turning his critical gaze toward those closest to him, marked by interviews in which he directly asks these figures if they murdered his mother—moments that are wrenching for their mixture of tension and discomfort.
Like Conway, Barbara was an alcoholic who had gotten clean via AA. The two sisters were close, and after many booze-related hardships, Conway had moved in with Barbara and Ali, the latter of whom thought that her aunt was taking advantage of her mother’s kindness. Conway, meanwhile, thought Ali was mean and angry to Barbara. Jeffrey makes his own claims about Ali’s supposed borderline personality disorder, which contributed to her flip-flopping attitude toward her estranged parents, and Ali admits that her teenage years were tough. Conway eventually proclaims that she’s sure Ali took her mother’s life. Yet because Conway is herself less than stable, and admits that—during a catastrophic descent into alcoholic insanity—she once tried to hire a hitman to assassinate Barbara, her accusations have to be taken with a big grain of salt.
Further muddying Murder on Middle Beach’s saga is the fact that, unbeknownst to Madison at the time, Barbara was engaged in hosting and recruiting members for “Gifting Tables,” a secretive pyramid scheme-type scam that involved women (and only women) giving each other money as a means of moving up a hierarchy and making lucrative wads of non-taxable cash. Jill and her cohort Donna Bellow went to prison for this scheme, which was only discovered after police examined the deceased Barbara’s computer. Given that Barbara and Jill were at odds before the former’s death, and that Barbara had made enemies by recruiting Gifting Table members from AA, it’s soon clear that any number of people might have had cause to kill her.
Madison tackles all of this from a highly invested vantage point, grounding the material in his own anguish, confusion, regret and fury over both the murder itself, and the lasting, destructive effect it’s had on his once-tight-knit family. Whether he’s surreptitiously recording conversations with his father and the Madison Police Department (who stymie his efforts to learn about the investigation), revisiting the scene of the crime, poring over old mementos, compassionately (if confrontational) chatting with relatives, or pondering the thicket of facts and conjecture before him, Madison puts himself front and center throughout Murder on Middle Beach. In doing so, he transforms it into a search not only for a homicidal fiend but, just as importantly, for the real Barbara—a woman with plenty of secrets whom Madison only knew as the doting and loyal mother we see in recurring home-movie clips.
To convey a sense of chaos and madness lurking beneath picturesque exteriors, Madison replays old childhood footage of himself and his mom in rapid-fire schizoid montages, and employs 1950s-era narration about affluent Connecticut and women’s traditional roles that ends with the audio warping into sludgy distortion. As with the diagrams that decorate each episode’s title card—where family-tree connections are laid out beneath a stump—these formal devices speak to the emotional turmoil of his ordeal, and make the proceedings feel like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle (or board game) that can’t be completed because a key piece or two is missing.
To a greater degree than most true-crime efforts, Murder on Middle Beach balances its sleuthing with a three-dimensional portrait of its central victim. In VHS recordings, photographs, and recollections from those closest to her—including her still-grief-stricken mother Barbara Lund—Madison’s non-fiction venture presents a warts-and-all appreciation for Barbara. Neither saint nor sinner, she comes across, instead, as a complex individual who adored her brood, suffered at the hands of her once-beloved spouse, made more than a few mistakes (some of them possibly prosecutable), and was ultimately slaughtered for reasons that—even with all these messy elements, and Madison’s dogged determination to locate the truth—are hard to comprehend.