First-time filmmaker Madison Hamburg attempts to solve an unspeakable crime in HBO’s new four-part docuseries, Murder on Middle Beach: his own mother’s murder. Hamburg spent the better part of a decade interviewing family and anyone else who knew her in the hopes of learning more about his mother’s life and gathering evidence that would hopefully explain how she died. However, the further he delved into her death, he uncovered a web of secrets, suspicious connections, and years-old grudges in his deceptively idyllic hometown.
Madison began interviewing friends and family in January 2013 in what he describes as “an opportunity to immortalize” his mother when he realized it was also an opportunity to help his family heal. “When I started asking questions, I realized I was grieving someone that I didn’t fully know because I was 18 when my Mom died,” Madison told Refinery29. “At that point, she was like a superhero in my eyes. I started to learn about stress and conflicts that she was protecting me from in her own life. I started to learn who she was as a human being. Who Barbara was.” Madison and his producer amassed 160 hours of footage in total as he took on the dual role of family member and investigative documentarian.
On March 3, 2010, single mother Barbara Hamburg was found murdered near her home in the upper-middle-class enclave of Madison, Connecticut. The autopsy revealed that Barbara’s death was caused by blunt force trauma and sharp force injury. On the day she died, Barbara was supposed to appear in family court for a case against her ex-husband, Jeffrey Hamburg, who she alleged owed thousands in alimony and child support. “I think that theme of duality within the facade of the sheltered upbringing that I had is overarching throughout the whole series,” Madison explained.
Immediately, Jeffrey became a person of interest. They divorced in 2002 and had money problems leading up to Barbara’s death. According to the New Haven Register, Barbara previously told police Jeffrey was involved in an international money-laundering scheme and had acquired at least $100 million from it. Even though he was supposedly a multimillionaire, he was behind on alimony and child support and stole nearly $100,000 from his children’s trust accounts from 2008 to early 2010. But however suspicious Jeffrey looked, his DNA didn’t match the DNA recovered at the crime scene. Investigators initially speculated that it was a crime of passion, but the lack of strong evidence left things open-ended and soon the case grew cold. No one was ever charged for Barbara’s death.
Another popular, though unproven, theory is that her involvement in a local pyramid scheme may have something to do with her murder. The program is known as a “gifting table,” which is similar to a Ponzi scheme in that investments from new members go toward paying the dividends of established members. To get involved in a gifting table, women would buy in at what was known as the “appetizer” level for $5,000. As they recruited other women to invest, they moved up the levels finally achieving the highest level known as the “dessert” table where they received a $40,000 payout, according to court documents. One theory is that the organization or someone who opposed it could have targeted Barbara. Much of this was kept from Barbara’s children, leaving far more questions than answers.
Though the mysterious death of a woman who kept certain aspects of her life a secret sounds like a classic start to a true crime series, Madison was hesitant to label it as such because he felt that the way he set out to tell this story subverted many expectations about the genre. He didn’t want his Mom or his relatives to get lost in the more violent details. “It’s a story about my mom, and about me, and about my family than about who’s most likely her murderer,” he explained. “I didn’t know where this project was going to end up and at the time, it felt like this might be the only opportunity that I would have to ask direct questions to my family members to hopefully dispel lingering distrust between them because of the unresolved nature of my Mom’s death.”
Therein lies the challenge of telling a story that asks a person to both experience it on a personal level and document it at the same time. Toward the end of filming, Madison felt his roles shift yet again. “The pendulum swung back from investigative documentarian to ‘Shit my aunt and my sister, they’re going to see this.’ People are going to see this and there’s no way of avoiding the inherent exploitative nature of telling a story like this. Because without conflict there is no arc. To do it right, it needs to have nuance and it needs to address the elephant in the room, or else we will never get past it,” he explained. “That was really important for me to identify in the series. The pendulum swinging back. What have I done in asking these questions and doing this on this stage in the way I have done it? Am I causing more harm than good?”
In the end, whatever happened with Murder on Middle Beach, Madison knew that his real intention was to get to know his mother as an adult and to help his family move forward. While there are many questions about how investigators chose to handle the case, one thing Madison wished would have happened is police sharing more of what they knew about who wasn’t a suspect. “The clarity and transparency with what I was granted, it’s incredibly relieving,” he said. “I just wish it was there from the beginning. I wish the police just told me that they knew certain people in my family didn’t do it and why. So we weren’t living for a decade with this residual distrust.”
Barabara’s case is still open and the Madison Police Department and the Cold Case Unit in the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney are currently investigating. Madison said it was too early to reveal anything that came up from filming the docuseries, but he did say that they have opened up a tip line for people to share tips anonymously, but also to share memories of his Mom.
Murder on Middle Beach is now streaming on HBO Max.