Boston Strangler

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

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.


Initially, the crimes were assumed to be the work of one unknown person dubbed "The Mad Strangler of Boston".[2] 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".[3] The killer was also known as the "Phantom Fiend"[4] or "Phantom Strangler",[5] due to his ability to get women to allow him into their apartments. In 1963, two investigative reporters for the Record American, Jean Cole and Loretta McLaughlin, wrote a four-part series about the killer, dubbing him "The Boston Strangler".[6][7] 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, which presumably should have discouraged women from admitting strangers into their homes. Many residents purchased tear gas and new locks and deadbolts for their doors.[2] Some women moved out of the area.[8][2]

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.[2][9] 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.[2] Hurkos provided a "minutely detailed description of the wrong person", and the press ridiculed Brooke.[9] 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.[2]


  • Anna Elsa (Legins) Šlesers, 56, sexually assaulted with unknown object and strangled with the belt on her bathrobe; found on June 14, 1962 in her third-floor apartment at 77 Gainsborough Street, Fenway, Boston[10]
  • Mary Mullen, 85, died from a heart attack; found on June 28, 1962, in her apartment at 1435 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. In his confession, DeSalvo said she collapsed as he grabbed her.[10]
  • Nina Frances Nichols, 68, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on June 30, 1962 in her home at 1940 Commonwealth Ave., Boston[10]
  • Helen Elizabeth Blake, 65, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on June 30, 1962 in her home at 73 Newhall St., Lynn, Massachusetts[10]
  • Ida Odes Irga, 74, sexually assaulted and strangled; found on August 19, 1962 in her apartment at 7 Grove Street, Beacon Hill, Boston[10]
  • Jane Buckley Sullivan, 67, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on August 21, 1962 in her home at 435 Columbia Road, Dorchester, Boston[10]
  • Sophie Clark, 20, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on December 5, 1962 in her apartment at 315 Huntington Ave., Fenway, Boston[10]
  • Patricia Jane Bullock Bissette, 22, strangled with her nylon stockings; found on December 31, 1962 in her home at 515 Park Drive, Fenway, Boston[10]
  • Mary Ann Brown, 69, raped, strangled, beaten, and stabbed; found on March 6, 1963 in her apartment at 319 Park St., Lawrence, Massachusetts[10]
  • Beverly Samans, 26, stabbed to death; found on May 6, 1963 in her home at 4 University Road in Cambridge, Massachusetts[10]
  • Marie Evelina (Evelyn) Corbin, 58, raped and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on September 8, 1963 in her home at 224 Lafayette St., Salem, Massachusetts[10]
  • Joann Marie Graff, 22, strangled with her nylon stockings; found on November 23, 1963 in her apartment at 54 Essex St., Lawrence, Massachusetts[10]
  • Mary Anne Sullivan, 19, sexually assaulted and strangled with nylon stockings; found on January 4, 1964 in her apartment at 44-A Charles St., Boston[10]

The murders of Margaret Davis, 60, of Roxbury and Cheryl Laird, 14, of Lawrence were originally attributed to the Boston Strangler, but were later found to be unrelated.[11][12]

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]

Prior to DNA confirmation in 2013, doubts existed as to whether DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. 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 modi operandi.

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.[13]

DeSalvo's attorney Bailey believed that his client was the killer, and described the case in The Defense Never Rests (1971).[2] 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."[14]

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.[15]

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 continues to work on the case for the DeSalvo family.[15]

DNA evidence[edit]

On July 11, 2013, the Boston Police Department announced that they had found DNA evidence which linked DeSalvo to the murder of Mary Sullivan.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19]
  • 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.
  • 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.[20]
  • A 2008 film The Boston Strangler – The Untold Story stars David Faustino as De Salvo.[21]
  • 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.[22]
  • 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.[23]
  • 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.[24]
  • He and the Zodiac Killer are featured in Image comics' The Roberts.[25]
  • 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.[26]
  • 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. [27]
  • A Boston hardcore band is named the Boston Strangler.[28]
  • 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 entitled 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.[29][30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anglin, Robert J. (January 13, 1967). "Albert DeSalvo is 'Boston Strangler'; Defense says he killed 13". The Boston Globe.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Gardner, Erle Stanley (May 1, 1964). "The Mad Strangler of Boston". The Atlantic. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  3. ^ "Mad Strangler Kills Four Women in Boston". Sunday Herald. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  4. ^ Bardsley, Marilyn. "The Boston Strangler". Archived from the original on May 10, 2013. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  5. ^ "Crime: The Phantom Strangler". Time. March 22, 1963. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved June 27, 2012.
  6. ^ Sherman, Casey (2003). A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler. UPNE. pp. 28–29. ISBN 9781555535780.
  7. ^ Kelly, Susan (2013). The Boston Stranglers. Pinnacle Books. p. 405. ISBN 9780786035342. (Bibliography showing article dates)
  8. ^ Lane, Brian; Gregg, Wilfred (1995). The Encyclopedia Of Serial Killers. Berkley. pp. 150-151. ISBN 9780425152133.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Thomas, Jack (June 13, 2002). "Victims of the Boston Strangler". The Boston Globe. Retrieved February 8, 2015.
  11. ^ "Wife 'Sticks By' Man Held in Cheryl's Killing". The Boston Globe. December 17, 1962.
  12. ^ Claffey, Charles E. (September 15, 1963). "9 Stranglings Still Unsolved -- And Circle of Fear Widens". The Boston Globe.
  13. ^ Connolly, Richard (February 29, 1968). "Doctor Says DeSalvo Not Strangler". The Boston Globe.
  14. ^ The Boston Strangler Archived May 11, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, 48 Hours Mystery, 15 February 2001. CBS News
  15. ^ a b "". Archived from the original on February 2, 2005. Retrieved August 24, 2008.
  16. ^ "New DNA Testing Ties Boston Strangler To 1964 Mary Sullivan Murder « CBS Boston". July 11, 2013. Retrieved July 12, 2013.
  17. ^ Bidgood, Jess (2013), "50 Years Later, a Break in a Boston Strangler Case", The New York Times, retrieved July 11, 2013
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "Fiction Book Review: The Strangler".
  21. ^ "Boston Strangler: The Untold Story (Video 2008) - IMDb".
  22. ^ "Serial Killer Cinema: 6 Movies Inspired by the Boston Strangler". CrimeFeed.
  23. ^ ""American Gothic" Strangler (TV Episode 1998) - IMDb".
  24. ^ "Rizzoli & Isles: Boston Strangler Redux". IMDB.
  25. ^ Shady, Justin; Chinsang, Wayne; Rose, Erik (Illustrator) (2009). The Roberts: one retirement home, two serial killers. Berkeley, Calif.: Image Comics, Inc. ISBN 978-1607060673.
  26. ^ Dean, Will (July 16, 2009). "Psychoville episode five: 'The Key'".
  27. ^ "Crossing Jordan (2001) - 2x13 - Strangled". Episode World.
  28. ^ "Boston Strangler Interview". Salad Days Magazine. Archived from the original on February 8, 2015.
  29. ^ "Phillip J. DiNatale, 67, Dies; Led Boston Strangler Inquiry". The New York Times. January 31, 1987. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  30. ^ Davis, Clint (November 17, 2016). "Boston Strangler murders get 'Serial' treatment in new true-crime series". WKBW Buffalo. Retrieved January 18, 2018.


  • Frank, Gerold. The Boston Strangler. Penguin Publishing Group, August 1967 ISBN 0451041755
  • Bailey, F. Lee. The Defense Never Rests. Stein and Day, 1971. 0-8128-1441-X
  • Junger, Sebastian. A Death in Belmont. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. April 2006. ISBN 0-393-05980-4.
  • 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.
  • Rogers, Alan. New England Remembers: The Boston Strangler. Commonwealth Editions. May 2006. ISBN 1-889833-52-5.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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