It was in Boston’s most notorious neighborhood that Professor William Douglas met sex worker Robin Benedict. Their stormy relationship, and the terrible crime that occurred, made national headlines. The irony is that they wouldn’t have met if not for the Combat Zone, a neighborhood that served as a magnet for the city’s most desperate and depraved.
Douglas had probably heard about the Combat Zone dating back to his days at Brown University in nearby Providence. The neighborhood was already known on a national level as a rough, dangerous place, having earned its name in the 1950s when brawls between local biker gangs and sailors frequently spilled out of the bars along lower Washington Street. The Zone was edging past its prime by the time Douglas started trolling the neighborhood. The clubs and topless dancers were in decline, and the advent of VCRs meant customers no longer had to sneak into dilapidated theaters to see X-rated action. Yet there were still cheap thrills to be found. Drug dealers roamed the sidewalks, and the sex trade was still strong.
To Douglas’s delight, the medical school abutted this world of sleaze. How did an ungainly professor navigate one of the shaggiest neighborhoods in the country? He might’ve been an inviting target for rowdy teens awaiting a bus to Roxbury or Dorchester, and he may have felt the burn of a cigarette butt ﬂicked at him for laughs. For Douglas, certain aspects of the Zone must’ve been bothersome, even scary.
What helped Douglas move freely in and out of the Zone was the area’s dichotomy. Despite the neighborhood’s reputation, it wasn’t merely a community of creeps and drifters. It was common to see elderly women and conservative businessmen cutting through on their way to a bus or subway station or strolling the neighborhood to buy a slice of pizza somewhere. The Zone maintained a few nice eateries and was adjacent to Chinatown; if Douglas’s colleagues happened to see him on Washington or Kneeland Street, he could say he was merely sampling a local restaurant and was on his way back to the lab.
The Zone had a way of getting into a person’s blood. Though there were dangers, many of the regulars were linked by a common good-humored attitude. Some of the strippers were friendly to customers, and even some of the area prostitutes were known by their ﬁrst names. The bookstore clerks got to know the customers and might even let you know when a new magazine had arrived that might appeal to your particular interest. Still, Douglas’s fascination with prostitutes would perplex many. His acquaintances remembered him as a killjoy. In his younger days he had avoided rowdy barrooms, discouraged vulgar talk, and hated to spend money. Was the pious cheapskate routine only an act? Or did Douglas’s hunger for the X-rated life supersede all else?
Others have wondered if Douglas’s obsessive behavior would’ve blossomed if not for the proximity of Tufts to the Combat Zone. Without such easy contact with prostitutes, would he have maintained his regular suburban life in Sharon?
Douglas never revealed how he ﬁrst entered the Zone or how he ﬁrst met Robin Benedict, but chances are he came to the neighborhood because of his interest in pornography. Douglas’s taste had become more aberrant, now including material about gang rape and outright sadism. In those pre-internet days, a man like Douglas satisﬁed his porn interest by seeking out adult bookstores. Granted, one could ﬁnd “dirty books” in a supermarket bookrack or any big city bus station, usually wrapped in plain brown paper, but Douglas knew he could explore the Zone and not be seen by his Sharon neighbors. Plus, the Zone had mystique, its storefronts practically vibrating with deviancy.
As the market for “erotica” grew in the 1980s, the Zone bookstores did booming business, whether hole-in-the-wall shops or massive places such as the Liberty Book Shop on Washington Street. The Liberty was a Disneyland for perverts. The layout was like a maze, and one could get lost wandering the long, overstocked aisles. Clerks were stationed everywhere like sentries to prevent shoplifting, behind counters and along the walls. Crammed onto the racks were apparently every pornographic movie and magazine ever produced, catering to every sort of fetish. There were sex toys and furry handcuffs and life-size inﬂatable love dolls; there were a variety of dildos, endless dildos, lined up on shelves like the stone statues on Easter Island. The mixture of heavy clear plastic that wrapped the magazines, the leather masks and bondage gear, and daily douses of super-strength cleaning products created an unmistakable scent. One whiff and you knew you were in the catacombs of adult entertainment. Visually and aromatically, it was dizzying; to stay there too long was to risk nausea. These shops were likely Douglas’s entry to the Zone. From the bookstores it was a quick hop to the bars.
Ultimately, Douglas’s love for the neighborhood was no deep riddle. He had developed an overwhelming addiction to all things carnal or pornographic. To be enslaved by such sexual hysteria was like having a wolf in his brain. In the Combat Zone it could be fed.
She was only twenty, and though myth would have her as among the highest-paid prostitutes in the Combat Zone, the truth is that Robin Benedict met William Douglas when she was relatively new in the neighborhood. Reporters would make a point of her charging ﬁfty dollars for half an hour of her time, as if that indicated her lofty street status, but ﬁfty bucks for the length of a sitcom was the going rate in those days. They’d write of her little address book, ﬁlled with the names of over 250 clients willing to pay for her services. Yet that client list was still months in the future. How many names were in it when she met Douglas? A few, perhaps. She really was just getting started.
Still, Robin had enough experience to recognize a sucker when she saw one. Douglas was nervous and smiled like an idiot. Yet he was gracious. Despite his immense size, he seemed gentle as a cow. She probably found him preferable to the typical customer at Charlie’s. Some hideous characters came into the place, the loneliest and lowest of the city, men who could only ﬁnd a woman’s touch right there on LaGrange Street. Then there were the rough, arrogant types who might belittle a woman, even after she’d given him what he’d wanted. Douglas appeared meek. And he had money.
What took place during their ﬁrst meeting was probably similar to what transpired between Robin Benedict and all of her customers. She introduced herself as Nadine, and gave a well-rehearsed spiel about herself, how she was only working at Charlie’s for the time being, that she had plans to go on to college someday and study graphic arts. There was actually a morsel of truth here; she had an artistic background, having brieﬂy attended the Rhode Island School of Design. She’d taken courses in airbrushing and artist’s anatomy. She was somewhat unusual for Good Time Charlie’s.
“What was really neat about her was she was so fresh-looking, the clean-cut type,” one of the other prostitutes would later say.
Douglas, we can guess, listened raptly to this fascinating young woman, getting lost in her deep brown eyes, wanting to touch her raven-colored hair. He may have tried to hold his own in the conversation. Or maybe he was tongue-tied in the presence of such a beauty. Sure, he’d known other prostitutes, but in comparison to Robin Benedict, the others were all rough and burned out; she could’ve been running for senior class president. Could Douglas take in everything that was happening? Did it all go by in a blur?
Was he already obsessed?