Boston Strangler

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The Boston Strangler is the name given to the murderer of 13 women in Greater Boston during the early 1960s. The crimes were attributed to Albert DeSalvo based on his confession, on details revealed in court during a separate case,[1] and DNA evidence linking him to the final victim.[2]

In the years following DeSalvo's conviction – but prior to the emergence of this DNA evidence – various parties investigating the crimes suggested that the murders (sometimes referred to as the "Silk Stocking Murders") were committed by more than one person.[3]


Initially, the crimes were assumed to be the work of one unknown person dubbed "The Mad Strangler of Boston".[4] On July 8, 1962, the Sunday Herald wrote that "[a] mad strangler is loose in Boston" in an article titled "Mad Strangler Kills Four Women in Boston".[5] The killer was also known as the "Phantom Fiend"[6] or "Phantom Strangler",[7] due to his ability to get women to allow him into their apartments. In 1963, two investigative reporters for the Record American, Jean Cole[8] and Loretta McLaughlin,[9] wrote a four-part series about the killer, dubbing him "The Boston Strangler".[10][11][12] By the time that DeSalvo's confession was aired in open court, the name "Boston Strangler" had become part of crime lore.


Between June 14, 1962, and January 4, 1964, 13 single women between the ages of 19 and 85 were murdered in the Boston area. Most were sexually assaulted and strangled in their apartments; police believe that one man was the perpetrator. With no sign of forced entry into their homes, the women were assumed to have let their assailant in, either because they knew him or because they believed him to be an apartment maintenance man, delivery man, or other service man. The attacks continued despite extensive media publicity after the first few murders. Many residents purchased tear gas and new locks and deadbolts for their doors.[13][4] Some women even moved out of the area in response to the killings.[14][4]

The murders occurred in several cities, including Boston, complicating jurisdictional oversight for prosecution of the crimes. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke helped to coordinate the various police forces.[4][15] He permitted parapsychologist Peter Hurkos to use his alleged extrasensory perception to analyze the cases, for which Hurkos claimed that a single person was responsible. This decision was controversial.[4] Hurkos provided a "minutely detailed description of the wrong person", and the press ridiculed Brooke.[15] The police were not convinced that all the murders were the actions of one person, although much of the public believed so. The apparent connections between a majority of the victims and hospitals were widely discussed.[4]


Name Age Discovery of body Location of body
Anna Elza Slesers 55 June 14, 1962 77 Gainsborough Street, Boston
Mary Mullen 85 June 28, 1962 1435 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
Nina Nioma Nichols 68 June 30, 1962 1940 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston
Helen Elizabeth Blake 65 June 30, 1962 73 Newhall Street, Lynn
Edes "Ida" Irga 75 August 19, 1962 7 Grove Street, Boston
Jane Sullivan 67 August 21, 1962 435 Columbia Road, Boston
Sophie L. Clark 20 December 5, 1962 315 Huntington Avenue, Boston
Patricia Jane Bissette 23 December 31, 1962 515 Park Drive, Boston
Mary Ann Brown 69 March 6, 1963 319 Park Street, Lawrence
Beverly Florence Samans 23 May 6, 1963 4 University Road, Cambridge
Marie Evelina "Evelyn" Corbin 57 September 8, 1963 224 Lafayette Street, Salem
Joann Marie Graff 23 November 23, 1963 54 Essex Street, Lawrence
Mary Anne Sullivan 19 January 4, 1964 44-A Charles Street, Boston

DeSalvo's confession[edit]

Gainsborough Street, site of the first murder attributed to the Boston Strangler

On October 27, 1964, a stranger entered a young woman's home posing as a detective. He tied the victim to her bed, sexually assaulted her, and suddenly left, saying "I'm sorry" as he went. The woman's description of her attacker led police to identify the assailant as DeSalvo. When his photo was published, many women identified him as the man who had assaulted them. Earlier on October 27, DeSalvo had posed as a motorist with car trouble and attempted to enter a home in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The homeowner, future Brockton police chief Richard Sproules, became suspicious and eventually fired a shotgun at DeSalvo.

DeSalvo was not initially suspected of being involved with the strangling murders. After he was charged with rape, he gave a detailed confession of his activities as the Boston Strangler. He initially confessed to fellow inmate George Nassar. Nassar reported the confession to his attorney F. Lee Bailey, who also took on the defense of DeSalvo. The police were impressed at the accuracy of DeSalvo's descriptions of the crime scenes. There were some inconsistencies, but DeSalvo was able to cite details that had been withheld from the public. Bailey states in his 1971 book, The Defense Never Rests, that DeSalvo got one detail right that one of the victims was wrong about: DeSalvo described a blue chair in the woman's living room. She stated it was brown. Photographic evidence proved DeSalvo was correct.

No physical evidence substantiated his confession. Because of that, he was tried on charges for earlier, unrelated crimes of robbery and sexual offenses, in which he was known as "The Green Man" and "The Measuring Man", respectively. Bailey brought up DeSalvo's confession to the murders as part of his client's history at the trial in order to assist in gaining a "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict to the sexual offenses, but it was ruled as inadmissible by the judge.

DeSalvo was sentenced to life in prison in 1967. In February of that year, he escaped with two fellow inmates from Bridgewater State Hospital, triggering a full-scale manhunt. A note was found on his bunk addressed to the superintendent. In it, DeSalvo stated that he had escaped to focus attention on the conditions in the hospital and his own situation. Immediately after his escape, DeSalvo disguised himself as a U.S. Navy Petty Officer Third Class, but he gave himself up the following day. After the escape, he was transferred to the maximum security Walpole State Prison. Six years after the transfer, he was found stabbed to death in the prison infirmary. His killer or killers were never identified.

Multiple-killer theories[edit]

Doubts persist as to whether DeSalvo was the sole perpetrator behind the Boston Strangler murders. At the time of his confession, people who knew him personally did not believe him capable of such vicious crimes. Several factors created doubt that a serial killer was involved, given that they characteristically have a certain type of victim and method of murder: women killed by "The Strangler" were from a variety of age and ethnic groups, and they were murdered using multiple methods.

In 1968, Dr. Ames Robey, medical director of Bridgewater State Hospital, insisted that DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler. He said the prisoner was "a very clever, very smooth compulsive confessor who desperately needs to be recognized." Robey's opinion was shared by Middlesex District Attorney John J. Droney, Bridgewater Superintendent Charles Gaughan, and George W. Harrison, a former fellow inmate of DeSalvo's. Harrison claimed to have overheard another convict coaching DeSalvo about details of the strangling murders.[16]

DeSalvo's attorney Bailey believed that his client was the killer, and described the case in The Defense Never Rests (1971).[4] Susan Kelly, author of the book The Boston Stranglers (1996), drew from the files of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts "Strangler Bureau". She argues that the murders were the work of several killers rather than a single individual. Former FBI profiler Robert Ressler said, "You're putting together so many different patterns [regarding the Boston Strangler murders] that it's inconceivable behaviorally that all these could fit one individual."[17]

John E. Douglas, the former FBI special agent who was one of the first criminal profilers, doubted that DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. In his book The Cases That Haunt Us, he identified DeSalvo as a "power-assurance" motivated rapist.[clarification needed] He said that such a rapist is unlikely to kill in the manner of crimes attributed to the Boston Strangler; a power-assurance motivated rapist would, however, be prone to taking credit for the crimes.

In 2000, attorney and former print journalist Elaine Sharp took up the cause of the DeSalvo family and that of the family of Mary Sullivan. Sullivan was publicized as being the final victim in 1964, although other strangling murders occurred after that date. Sharp assisted the families in their media campaign to clear DeSalvo's name. She helped organize and arrange the exhumations of Mary Sullivan and Albert H. DeSalvo, filed various lawsuits in attempts to obtain information and trace evidence (e.g., DNA) from the government, and worked with various producers to create documentaries to explain the facts to the public.[18]

Sharp noted various inconsistencies between DeSalvo's confessions and the crime scene information (which she obtained). For example, she observed that, contrary to DeSalvo's confession to Sullivan's murder, the woman was found to have no semen in her vagina and she was not strangled manually, but by ligature. Forensic pathologist Michael Baden noted that DeSalvo got the time of death wrong. This was a common inconsistency also pointed out by Susan Kelly in several of the murders. She continued to work on the case for the DeSalvo family.[18]

DNA evidence[edit]

On July 11, 2013, the Boston Police Department announced that they had found DNA evidence that linked DeSalvo to the murder of Mary Sullivan.[19] DNA found at the scene was a "near certain match" to Y-DNA taken from a nephew of DeSalvo. Y-DNA is passed through the direct male lines with little change and can be used to link males with a common paternal-line ancestor. A court ordered the exhumation of DeSalvo's corpse to test his DNA directly.[20] On July 19, 2013, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis announced the DNA test results proving that DeSalvo was the source of seminal fluid recovered at the scene of Sullivan's 1964 murder.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Philadelphia 76ers player Andrew Toney was dubbed "the Boston Strangler" because of his outstanding performances against the Boston Celtics; a notable example is Game 7 of the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals.
  • The 1964 film The Strangler was inspired by the unsolved killings.[22]
  • William Goldman's 1964 novel No Way to Treat a Lady and its 1968 film adaptation were both inspired by the multiple-killer theories of the Boston Strangler.[23]
  • The 1968 film The Boston Strangler starred Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo. Henry Fonda co-starred.
  • The 1995 film Copycat makes reference to the Boston Strangler.
  • The 2007 novel The Strangler by William Landay depicts the family of an attorney on the Strangler task force.[24]
  • A 2008 film The Boston Strangler – The Untold Story stars David Faustino as De Salvo.[25]
  • The 2010 television film The Front, starring Andie MacDowell and Daniel Sunjata, depicts a detective who reopens an unsolved 1960s murder of a woman who may have been the first victim of the Boston Strangler. The plot suggests that DeSalvo was not the only perpetrator of these Boston murders.[26]
  • The Boston Strangler made an appearance in the episode "Strangler" of CBS's American Gothic, where he was summoned by the antagonist sheriff Lucas Buck to get rid of Merlyn Temple. However, Lucas leaves town to attend a convention, and Albert De Salvo -aka The Boston Strangler- decides to do more than just try to kill Merlyn.[27]
  • The Boston Strangler was featured as a central figure in the second episode of TNT's Rizzoli & Isles, starring Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander. The episode was called "Boston Strangler Redux", featuring a new serial killer who killed women with the same names as the original Strangler's victims. He is eventually revealed to have been one of the original detectives investigating the case who tried to frame the man whom he believed to be the real Boston Strangler.[28]
  • He and the Zodiac Killer are featured in Image comics' The Roberts.[29]
  • A waxwork of Albert DeSalvo was featured in an episode of the British comedy series Psychoville. The waxwork comes to life in a fantasy sequence (along with those of John George Haigh, John Christie, and Jack the Ripper), trying to persuade character David Sowerbutts to kill a man by strangling. The others accused him of having several personalities, referencing the 1968 movie.[30]
  • In the 13th episode of the second season of Crossing Jordan titled "Strangled", the characters have a Cold Case party where they role play the investigation into two murders that fit the MO of the Boston Strangler. [31]
  • A Boston hardcore band is named the Boston Strangler.[32]
  • The Rolling Stones released "Midnight Rambler" on the album Let It Bleed in 1969. The song is a loose biography of Albert DeSalvo; "the Boston Strangler" is mentioned in the lyrics once.
  • A 2016 podcast titled Stranglers delves into the Boston Strangler investigation and features clips of the DeSalvo confession tapes and interviews with relatives of the key players in the investigation, including chief investigator Phil DiNatale's sons.[33][34]
  • Boston Strangler is a 2023 American drama starring Keira Knightley,[35] Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, Chris Cooper,[36] and David Dastmalchian.[37] The film was shot in the Boston area. It was theatrically released in the United States by 20th Century Studios.[38]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Byers, Margery. “Fear walks home with the women.” Life, February 15, 1963.
  • Frank, Gerold. The Boston Strangler. Penguin Publishing Group, August 1967 ISBN 0451041755
  • Bailey, F. Lee. The Defense Never Rests. Stein and Day, 1971.
  • Kelly, Susan. The Boston Stranglers: The Public Conviction of Albert Desalvo and the True Story of Eleven Shocking Murders. Citadel. October 1995. ISBN 1-55972-298-3.
  • Kirkpatrick, Sidney. “The Psychic, the Shoe Salesman, and the Boston Strangler.” Los Angeles Times Magazine, May 12, 2002.
  • Sherman, Casey and Dick Lehr. A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Boston Strangler. Northeastern University Press. September 2003. ISBN 1-55553-578-X.
  • Junger, Sebastian. A Death in Belmont. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. April 2006. ISBN 0-393-05980-4.[39]
  • Rogers, Alan. New England Remembers: The Boston Strangler. Commonwealth Editions. May 2006. ISBN 1-889833-52-5.
  • Wallace, Irving, et al. The Book of Lists 2. "12 Mass Murderers Who Got Their Start In The U.S. Armed Forces". p. 49. William Morrow & Company, Inc. 1980. ISBN 0-688-03574-4.\
  • Bulman, Philip (March 2014). "Solving Cold Cases with DNA: The Boston Strangler Case". National Institute of Justice Journal. Office of Justice Programs (273): 48–51.
  • Smith, Nathan (March 16, 2023). "The Tenacious Women Reporters Who Helped Expose the Boston Strangler". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 16, 2023.


  1. ^ Anglin, Robert J. (January 13, 1967). "Albert DeSalvo is 'Boston Strangler'; Defense says he killed 13". The Boston Globe.
  2. ^ "Boston Strangler". Britannica. Retrieved March 16, 2023.
  3. ^ "Albert DeSalvo". Case Files. Modus Operandi - Serial Killers. Archived from the original on January 18, 2000. Retrieved March 16, 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Gardner, Erle Stanley (May 1, 1964). "The Mad Strangler of Boston". The Atlantic. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  5. ^ "Mad Strangler Kills Four Women in Boston". Sunday Herald. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  6. ^ Bardsley, Marilyn. "The Boston Strangler". Archived from the original on May 10, 2013. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  7. ^ "Crime: The Phantom Strangler". Time. March 22, 1963. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  8. ^ O'Laughlin, Frank (August 13, 2015). "Jean Cole Harris, 89, Former Newspaper Reporter". Patch. Charlestown, MA. Retrieved March 16, 2023.
  9. ^ McLaughlin, Loretta (September 29, 1992). "Boston Strangler Recalled". Chicago Tribune. Boston Globe. Archived from the original on February 24, 2023. Retrieved March 16, 2023.
  10. ^ Smith, Nathan (March 16, 2023). "The Tenacious Women Reporters Who Helped Expose the Boston Strangler". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved March 16, 2023.
  11. ^ Sherman, Casey (2003). A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler. UPNE. pp. 28–29. ISBN 9781555535780.
  12. ^ Kelly, Susan (2013). The Boston Stranglers. Pinnacle Books. p. 405. ISBN 9780786035342. (Bibliography showing article dates)
  13. ^ Byers, Margery. “Fear walks home with the women.” Life, February 15, 1963.
  14. ^ Lane, Brian; Gregg, Wilfred (1995). The Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers. Berkley. pp. 150-151. ISBN 9780425152133.
  15. ^ a b "The Senate: An Individual Who Happens To Be a Negro". Time. February 17, 1967. Archived from the original on February 20, 2008. Retrieved December 24, 2010.
  16. ^ Connolly, Richard (February 29, 1968). "Doctor Says DeSalvo Not Strangler". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on June 11, 2016. Retrieved July 5, 2017.
  17. ^ The Boston Strangler Archived May 11, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, 48 Hours Mystery, 15 February 2001. CBS News
  18. ^ a b "". Archived from the original on February 2, 2005. Retrieved August 24, 2008.
  19. ^ "New DNA Testing Ties Boston Strangler To 1964 Mary Sullivan Murder « CBS Boston". July 11, 2013. Retrieved July 12, 2013.
  20. ^ Bidgood, Jess (2013), "50 Years Later, a Break in a Boston Strangler Case", The New York Times, retrieved July 11, 2013
  21. ^ Otis, Ginger Adams (July 19, 2013). "DNA confirms Albert DeSalvo's link to 'Boston Strangler' killing of Mary Sullivan: authorities". New York Daily News. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  22. ^ Weaver, Tom (2005). "Burt Topper on The Strangler". Earth vs. the sci-fi filmmakers: 20 interviews. McFarland. p. 367. ISBN 978-0-7864-2210-4. Retrieved October 5, 2009.
  23. ^ O'Brien, Kathryn (July 11, 2013). "FROM THE VAULT: Recalling the 'Boston Strangler'". Wicked Local. Retrieved March 16, 2023.
  24. ^ "Fiction Book Review: The Strangler".
  25. ^ "Boston Strangler: The Untold Story (Video 2008) - IMDb". IMDb.
  26. ^ "Serial Killer Cinema: 6 Movies Inspired by the Boston Strangler". CrimeFeed. Archived from the original on June 10, 2018. Retrieved March 3, 2017.
  27. ^ ""American Gothic" Strangler (TV Episode 1998) - IMDb". IMDb.
  28. ^ "Rizzoli & Isles: Boston Strangler Redux". IMDB.
  29. ^ Shady, Justin; Chinsang, Wayne; Rose, Erik (Illustrator) (2009). The Roberts: one retirement home, two serial killers. Berkeley, Calif.: Image Comics, Inc. ISBN 978-1607060673.
  30. ^ Dean, Will (July 16, 2009). "Psychoville episode five: 'The Key'".
  31. ^ "Crossing Jordan (2001) - 2x13 - Strangled". Episode World.
  32. ^ "Boston Strangler Interview". Salad Days Magazine. Archived from the original on February 8, 2015.
  33. ^ "Phillip J. DiNatale, 67, Dies; Led Boston Strangler Inquiry". The New York Times. January 31, 1987. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  34. ^ Davis, Clint (November 17, 2016). "Boston Strangler murders get 'Serial' treatment in new true-crime series". WKBW Buffalo. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  35. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (October 4, 2021). "Keira Knightley To Star In 20th Century Studios' Boston Strangler; Scott Free, LuckyChap Producing". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 1, 2022.
  36. ^ Kroll, Justin (November 17, 2021). "Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola & Chris Cooper Join 20th Century's Boston Strangler". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 1, 2022.
  37. ^ Couch, Aaron (November 30, 2021). "David Dastmalchian Joins Keira Knightley in Boston Strangler (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 1, 2022.
  38. ^ Bowker, Brittany (December 8, 2021). "Dispatches from 'Boston Strangler' set: Filming continues in the South End". The Boston Globe. Retrieved January 1, 2022.
  39. ^ Article about Sebastian Junger's Book A Death in Belmont. Time magazine, April 3, 2006.

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