CHEYENNE — Growing up in California, Suzanne Handler never knew her aunt.
In fact, until she was 50, Handler didn’t even know she had an aunt.
But once she found out, she tried to learn more. What she discovered was a hidden shame that her mother and uncles had been hiding for decades.
“It was a secret in the family,” Handler said. “I never knew, and my cousins never knew, that my mother had a sister and that my grandfather shot and killed her.”
Handler’s search for the truth is now chronicled in a book, “The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family.”
The book was released last year, but it was only this past month that Handler’s quest to honor her aunt’s memory finally came to a conclusion.
Handler’s aunt, Sally Levin, was born on Sept. 6, 1920, to Sam Levin, a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to the United States in 1911.
“Both sets of my grandparents were homesteaders,” Handler said. “My grandfather was a businessman. He had a used furniture store, and on the weekends he would work his land out at Granite Canyon, 16 miles west of Cheyenne.”
Handler said she first heard of Sally Levin’s existence when a friend of her mother made mention of her in a 1991 conversation.
“By accident, somebody told me my mother had a sister,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t think so. My mother didn’t have a sister.’
“Then the person who told me said, ‘Don’t tell your mother. She’s going to be very upset.’”
Some 12 years later, one of Handler’s cousins mailed her a package filled with news clippings about Sally Levin. He had collected them after Handler’s mother briefly mentioned Levin to him.
“All these clippings were from the Cheyenne newspapers, the Tribune and the Eagle,” Handler said. “My family’s name was plastered all over these articles.”
But when Handler confronted her mother and one surviving uncle, both refused to discuss the matter.
“I contacted my mother, and she said, ‘I’m never going to talk about this,’” Handler said. “She said, ‘I burned those clippings when I got mine in the mail. I’m never going to talk about it.’”
But the silence didn’t deter Handler, who paid numerous visits to the Wyoming State Archives. What she discovered there shocked her.
By the time she was 16, Sally Levin had been diagnosed with dementia praecox, which Handler said was a mid-century term for schizophrenia.
Sally’s father, Sam, had been told she was incurable and a safety risk to the rest of his family.
“She was having psychotic episodes; she tried to burn the house down,” Handler said. “My grandfather took her to two doctors, and they both declared her insane.”
Sally was facing the prospect of institutionalization at the State Insane Asylum in Evanston, now known simply as the Wyoming State Hospital.
Terrified by the prospect, she asked her father for a way out: She asked him to kill her and then himself in a murder/suicide pact.
He obliged. On the morning of Aug. 16, 1937, Sam Levin bought a revolver at a pawn shop in Cheyenne. He then took Sally to what was then known as the Warren Military Reservation, now F.E. Warren Air Force Base.
“He shot her once in the head, once in the breast, and she fell to the ground,” Handler said. “Then he shot himself twice in the head.”
But he didn’t die.
Sam Levin went on to stab himself with a pocket knife, but he still failed to take his life. Instead, he went to Memorial Hospital for treatment of his wounds.
There, Sally was declared dead within the hour.
Sam Levin pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to five years in prison, but later he was given probation.
He would live with the memory of his actions until the day he died in 1975 at the age of 87. The rest of the family, meanwhile, put the memory of Sally behind them and tried to resume their lives.
“My mother and her three surviving siblings had a pact never to discuss her,” Handler said. “Within a month after the sentencing, they were in California, every one of them.”
Larry Brown, a volunteer at the State Archives, helped Handler with her research. With his help, the two eventually located Sally Levin’s grave in the Mount Sinai Jewish Cemetery in Cheyenne.
“It was over an extended period because we went through the basics,” Brown said. “She did an enormous amount of work on her own, then would come back periodically with various leads on other aspects of the case.
“There are so many exciting stories in Wyoming’s history. But, indeed, Sally’s story is very special, and it’s a very personal, tragic story for the family.”
Handler said when she first located Sally’s grave, the marker was misspelled. It read: “Salie Levin, daughter, 1920-1937.”
Aware of her family’s Orthodox Jewish roots, Handler said she was disappointed to see the marker was bereft of traditional Jewish markings.
“I made a commitment on the day I saw her stone that I would fix that,” Handler said.
She ordered a new marker to accompany the original stone. On Sept. 29, she, a group of friends and Rabbi Rick Rheins of Temple Sinai in Denver returned to Cheyenne to rededicate the site in Sally Levin’s memory.
Said Rheins, “It was a nice conclusion to this project for Suzanne, who really poured years into the research and the book.
“There is some universality to the notion that every one of our families has something that we would consider an embarrassment. Yet sometimes what we might find terribly embarrassing can become an overwhelming secret that causes some long-term burden for the family.
“This shows that there are some things in our lives we need to own up to and process, as opposed to suppressing them.
Aunt added to list
Jeff Weinstein of Cheyenne was on hand for the ceremony, representing the local Mount Sinai Synagogue. Handler said Weinstein has agreed to include Sally Levin’s name in the congregation’s yahrzeit, the reading of a person’s name on the anniversary of their death.
In this way, Handler said, the memory of her aunt, who lay forgotten for so long, will never be forgotten again.
“I feel she was honored and properly buried now,” Handler said. “I feel very much at peace and a real sense of closure.”
But she also defended her decision to keep Levin’s original grave marker alongside the new one. She sees it as another reminder of her family’s long-running secret and the search for a truth that was brought to light after more than 75 years.
“I wanted to honor this girl because she died under these terrible circumstances that certainly impacted my family,” Handler said. “They lived the rest of their lives with the shame and guilt of what happened.
“I feel fortunate to be the one person who committed myself to doing this thing. Otherwise, she would never have been noticed.”
Sally Levin’s new grave marker bears the Hebrew phrase “Zikhronah L’vrakhah.” Translated it means: to “her blessed memory.”
Below it is another inscription, this time in English: “She will not be forgotten.”