compared him to Jack the Ripper, but the Ripper's victims were
prostitutes. The Boston Strangler killed ordinary women and he didn't stab them, he
raped and strangled them.
The Strangler's reign of terror began in June 1962. Over the next nineteen months, thirteen unmarried women, the youngest 19, the oldest 85, were murdered in Boston and nearby cities.
But after the 13th murder in January 1964, the murders suddenly stopped. Later that year, in an unrelated incident, police arrested Albert DeSalvo for sexual assault. DeSalvo was not on any list of possible Strangler suspects. But in 1965, while incarcerated in a state hospital for mental evaluation, DeSalvo confessed that he was the Boston Strangler. But was he?
Silk stockings and bow ties
On June 14, 1962 Anna Slesers, 55, was found dead in her apartment, sexually assaulted and strangled. The sash of her bathrobe was tied around her neck in a grotesque bow. On June 28, Mary Mullen, 85, was found strangled. Two days later, Helen Blake, 65, was found strangled with a bow tied under her chin.
Although the term "serial killer" was not then used, all three murders occurred in Boston's Back Bay, the first in an apartment on Gainsboro Street (photo left). Due to their similar MO, police believed the same man killed them.
victims were posed for shock value. One had a pillowcase knotted around her neck, her legs
spread, her feet propped up on two chairs with a bed pillow under her buttocks.
Posed facing the door of the apartment, her body was the first thing anyone saw
when they entered.
Most of these details were withheld from the press, but rumors ran rampant in the tabloids.
Women who lived alone were terrified. Police warned them
to lock their doors and be wary of strange men who knocked on their door.
Many bought dogs, hoping a dog might protect them from the Strangler.
1962: more victims
As the murders continued, Boston Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara had his detectives investigate known sex offenders and violent former mental patients. A former FBI agent, McNamara asked the Bureau to hold a seminar on sex crimes for his fifty best detectives. Police attended the victims' funerals, scanning the crowd for likely suspects, and interviewed hundreds of suspects. In what was then a first, police used computers to compile information and facilitate communication between various departments.
sixth victim, Jane Sullivan, 67, was found on August 20, 1962. Three months
passed without a strangler-murder. But on December 5th, the sixth strangler
victim was found, Sophie Clark, 20, and another soon followed: on December 31,
the last day of 1962, the seventh victim, Patricia Bissette, 23, was
This was not a "happy new year" for police.
1963: More murders, police stymied
Elected Attorney General of Massachusetts in 1962, Edward Brooke (photo right) paid police to guard his wife and two daughters. [In 1966 he became the first African-American elected to the US Senate.] Under pressure to catch the killer, he created the Strangler Bureau and even hired two psychics to profile the Strangler, a move the news media ridiculed.
March, May, and September of 1963, three more women were murdered, but this
time the "strangler" victims were found outside of Boston: one in
Cambridge, one in Salem and one in Lawrence several miles north of Boston.
For two months there were no murders. On November 22, Massachusetts residents (and millions of others) were devastated by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This did not deter the Strangler. One day later on November 23, the body of a 12th victim, Joann Graff, 23, was found in her Lawrence apartment.
The Last Victim and a startling development
January 4, 1964, Mary Sullivan, 19, was found in her apartment on Charles
Street in Boston. And
then there were none. Months went by without a Strangler murder. Spring came
and went. Summer faded into Fall.
Then, in an unrelated matter in November 1964, police arrested Albert DeSalvo, 33, for sexual assault. Although he had been linked to sexual assaults and rapes in several New England states, DeSalvo was never a suspect in the strangler murders.
was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for a mental evaluation.
Then came a big surprise. In 1965, Albert DeSalvo claimed that he was the Boston Strangler.
Who was Albert DeSalvo?
He was born in Chelsea, MA, in 1931. His family was very poor. His father, Frank DeSalvo, was a sadistic
alcoholic who brutally abused his wife, Charlotte DeSalvo, Albert and his five
siblings. He brought home prostitutes and had sex with them in front of his
family. Albert once saw him knock Charlotte's teeth out and break her fingers
one by one.
When Albert was five, his father taught him to steal from stores. For several months he forced Albert and his sister to work for a farmer. In 1944, when Albert was 13, his mother divorced his father and fled with her six children.
Albert later recalled that as a child he took great pleasure in shooting cats with a bow and arrow. FBI profilers believe some serial killers habitually torture and kill animals as children. When Albert was 12, he was arrested for breaking and entering and sent to the Lyman School for delinquent boys. There, he perfected his burglary skills. After his release, he supported himself by burglarizing homes. He became sexually active and gained a reputation for his large sexual appetite.
Military service and a German wife
At 17, Albert joined the Army and was sent to Germany. There, he won the US Army middleweight boxing championship and married his wife, Irmgard Beck. He brought her back to the States and did a second Army tour at Fort Dix, NJ. In 1955, Albert, then 23, was charged with his first sex offense, the molestation of a 9 year old girl. But her parents refused to proceed with the case and the charges were dropped. Despite his court-martial, Albert was honorably discharged in 1956.
1958, his first child was born. For a time he seemed happy, but soon his wife began to refuse his
incessant sexual demands. He later claimed he required sex at least six times a
day. Rejected by his wife, he became The Measuring Man. Saying he was a
talent scout for a modeling agency, he conned his way into women's apartments and used a tape measure to take their measurements, touching them
inappropriately whenever possible.
But he never raped them.
Albert was arrested for burglary and sent to prison for two years. Released after 11 months, he returned to his wife. When she again rejected his sexual advances, he abandoned his harmless "Measuring Man" approach and turned violent, tying up his victims and raping them. Because all the victims said he wore green pants, police dubbed him The Green Man.
He later claimed to have raped 3,000 women, saying it didn't matter what they looked like. He said: "It really was Woman that I wanted--not any special one, just Woman, with what a woman has."
The murders begin
June 1962, his violent tendencies escalated. He tried to murder a woman in her
apartment, but he caught sight of himself in the mirror by the bed and stopped.
He told her he was sorry and left. A week later, the first Strangler victim was
found and the "Boston Strangler" killing spree began. Sometimes he
raped his victims. Other victims suffered brutal sexual assaults with household
items like broomsticks. But after January 1964, the killings stopped.
Incarceration, confession and murder
November 1964, police arrested Albert DeSalvo and linked him to The Green Man
rapes in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Albert was
sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for a mental evaluation. In the spring of 1965, he
told another inmate, George Nassar that he had killed thirteen women,
describing the murders in lurid detail.
Nassar, (photo right) a twice convicted murderer, told his lawyer, who happened to be famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. Never one to dodge the spotlight, Bailey (below) interviewed Albert and became convinced he was the Boston Strangler.
After some legal wrangling, Bailey won Albert
immunity from prosecution for the murders and Albert confessed to the crimes.
In 1967, Albert was sentenced to life in prison for the many rapes he had previously committed and was incarcerated in Walpole State Prison.
In November 1973, while confined to the prison infirmary, other inmates (never identified) stabbed Albert DeSalvo to death. Case closed. Or was it?
Enter the mystery writer
November 1981, Boston author Susan Kelly went to the Cambridge, MA, police
station to do research for a novel she was writing about a serial killer. She
learned that some people involved with the Boston Strangler case did not
believe DeSalvo was the killer. They urged her to investigate.
In 1995, Kelly
published The Boston
Stranglers: The Public Conviction of Albert DeSalvo and the True Story of
Eleven Shocking Murders. (2nd Edition cover at right)
it she claimed DeSalvo had lied. Saying it was unlikely that one
person committed all the murders, she learned that a solid case was
being developed on another suspect, but when DeSalvo confessed, that
investigation was dropped. And if Albert DeSalvo wasn't the Strangler, she
reasoned, several men had gotten away with murder.
Why did Albert DeSalvo confess?
Albert had two motives: money and fame. He believed he would spend the rest of his life in jail and wanted to raise money to support his wife and two children. And he had always been a braggart. Being known as the Boston Strangler would make him famous and allow him to cash in on book and movie deals. Even before he confessed, a film, The Strangler, was released in 1964. His therapist at Bridgewater was quoted as saying: "Albert so badly wanted to be the Strangler."
Why did the authorities believe him?
Attorney General Edward Brook was running for the U.S. Senate. Resolution of the Strangler case would be a boon to his campaign. But no evidence was ever found to link Albert DeSalvo to the murders, and, although Albert had a distinctive face, no eyewitness could place him at or near any of the crime scenes. In her book, Kelly points out that "three fresh Salem cigarette butts were found in an ashtray near one victim's bed, but Albert DeSalvo didn't smoke." And neither the victim nor her roommates smoked that brand of cigarette.
After convincing the authorities to grant Albert immunity from prosecution, F. Lee Bailey taped his confession, more than 50 hours of tapes and 2,000 pages of transcriptions. (photo left, Bailey with DeSalvo photo) Much of it was convincing. Police felt that if Albert wanted to take "credit" for the crimes, so be it. They had no evidence to convict him, and if the murders continued, they would be unable to charge the "real" murderer for them.
In his confession, Albert gave many specific details. But many people attested to his exceptional memory. His therapist, Dr. Robey, testified that he had "absolute, complete, one hundred per cent total photographic recall." Two of his lawyers agreed: "Albert had a phenomenal memory."
Newspapers gave details of the crimes. The Record American printed a chart, along with the victim's photos, that summarized the important details: what the victims wore, their hobbies, and other information. Kelly believes DeSalvo memorized this chart because "in his confession, he regurgitated not only the correct data on it but the few pieces of misinformation it contained as well."
also cites leaks by law enforcement, the Strangler Bureau, and the Suffolk
County Medical Examiner, who allegedly held press conferences in which he
revealed information about the autopsies.
Kelly believes some information was
given to Albert by those anxious to close the case.
She also believes
information may have been given to him by another suspect, George Nassar,
a convicted murderer, the man to whom Albert bragged about the murders.
Photo left: Nassar in the custody of two police officers.
More than one killer?
Some serial killer experts believed there were at least two murderers and possibly more. Although the murders had similarities, there were differences.
- Some victims were posed, some were not.
- Some murders were brutal and aggressive, but some were more clinical and efficient
- Some victims were physically raped, but some were sexually assaulted with blunt objects from the house.
- A few victims were stabbed; one victim was killed solely by more than 25 stab wounds, not strangled.
- Some victims were strangled with multiple ligatures while some were strangled using only one. One victim was killed by manual strangulation.
Most serial killers tend to select a particular type of victim: prostitutes, or girls with a particular hair color and style, or young boys. But the Strangler victims were widely different in age and ethnicity diverse. Although most were white, one was black.
The two eyewitnesses
Witness #1 lived in the same building as Sophie Clark. Right before Sophie was murdered, a man knocked on her door saying he'd been hired to paint her apartment. When she said her husband was sleeping in the other room, he left. Witness #2 had survived an encounter with The Strangler, beating him off until he fled.
Police arranged for them to pose as visitors in the prison visiting room so they could secretly view Albert DeSalvo and George Nassar. Both women had seen photos of DeSalvo, but not of Nassar. When Nasser arrived to meet with a social worker, Witness #2 felt there was something familiar about him. But not DeSalvo. No, she said, "that's not the man I fought with. But that other man [Nassar] ... I don't know what to say ... I'm so upset." She told police Nassar reminded her of the man who attacked her. But she wasn't sure ...
#1 told police that DeSalvo was not the man she who came to her door right
before Sophie Clark was murdered. But Nassar fit the mysterious
"painter" in almost every way: his eyes, his walk, his dark
speculative gaze. Only his hair was different. The "painter" had
light colored hair. Nassar's was black, but the women said: maybe he had dyed it the day
she saw him?
DeSalvo or Nassar?
Desalvo (left) had given only sketchy details, some of them incorrect, about Mary Brown who was raped,
strangled and beaten to death in Lawrence in March 1963.
George Nassar (right) grew up in Lawrence, and Mary Brown lived on the same street as the man Nassar murdered in 1948.
The Strangler case reopened
In October 2000, an unlikely pair combined to get the case reopened. One was Richard DeSalvo, Albert's brother. The other was Casey Sherman, nephew of Mary Sullivan, the Strangler's last known victim. The Attorney General agreed to reopen the case, but denied them access to evidence because the case was officially "not solved."
his aunt's killer was still at large, Sherman had her body exhumed for DNA
testing, which wasn't possible in 1963. Tests were conducted on samples of
hair, semen and tissue taken from Sullivan's body. In 2001, Albert DeSalvo's
body was exhumed and taken to a forensic lab. An autopsy was conducted on the
remains by a team of scientists led by James E. Starrs, professor of forensic
sciences at George Washington University.
But the DNA evidence from Mary Sullivan's remains did not provide a match to Albert DeSalvo. Starrs told reporters: "We have found evidence, and the evidence does not and cannot be associated with Albert DeSalvo." He also said that the evidence only clears DeSalvo of sexual assault, not murder.
Richard DeSalvo (left) and the DeSalvo family felt vindicated by the results. Casey Sherman urged police to "go after the real killer" whom he believed was still alive and living in New England.
Who was the Boston Strangler? Albert DeSalvo? George Nassar? Someone else? I look forward to your comments on this controversial case.
Sources: Serial Murderers and Their Victims, Eric W. Hickey, 1991
Serial Killers: The Insatiable Passion, David Lester, PhD, 1995
"Memories of the Strangler," Martine Powers, Boston Globe, 6-14-2012
In 2002, Susan Kelly released the 2nd edition of The Boston Stranglers: The Public Conviction of Albert DeSalvo and the True Story of Eleven Shocking Murders. If you're interested in these cases, her book is a great place to start.
Other books about the Strangler case: A Death in Belmont, Sebastian Junger, 2006
Search for the Strangler: My Hunt for Boston's Most Notorious Killer, Casey Sherman and Dick Lehr, 2005, and The Boston Strangler, Gerald Frank, 1986