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Boston Strangler

Crime Files
Boston Strangler

In a short period between June 1962 and January 1964 a series of grisly murders took place in Boston. All the victims were women who had been strangled. In the same way that London witnessed a succession of brutal killings mostly attributed to the unknown butcher The Ripper, the Boston slayings were equally blamed on one lone sociopath.

Mystery and mythology still surrounds both. The Boston Strangler has been held accountable for around eleven murders of women (non prostitutes) out of thirteen victims. Similarly to the Victorian killer, no-one was actually tried for the Boston murders. But one Albert DeSalvo was – by the public at least - believed to be the man responsible.

DeSalvo actually confessed to each of the thirteen official Strangler murders. However, some doubt was shed on DeSalvo having been the killer by people who personally knew and worked with him. What marks these particular murders out in the annals of serial killing is the fact that all the victims were considered to be mature or elderly. The combination of old age, loneliness and vulnerability, adds to the brutality and tragedy of the events.

Albert DeSalvo, a well built 29-year-old, had a history of breaking and entering into properties for years. He had spent time in prison for a bizarre series of ‘peeping tom’ like escapades where he would knock on ladies' doors, pretend he was a model scout and proceed to ‘measure up’ the flattered woman if he was lucky enough to get in. It seemed a harmless, albeit disturbing, pastime and DeSalvo spent 18 months in prison for such sexually orientated mischievousness.

DeSalvo had a tough upbringing. He was brought up with four other siblings and his father was a wife-beating alcoholic. The boy became a delinquent and spent time in and out of prison for petty crime and violence. Years later after he had been discharged from the army for disobeying orders he settled down and married his sweetheart, Irmgard Beck, a girl from Germany. They lived modestly and, despite Irmgard giving birth to a handicapped child, the family managed to sustain itself. Irmgard was aware that DeSalvo was highly sexed and tried to avoid intercourse for fear of having another handicapped baby. However, a healthy boy was born and DeSalvo appeared to become a conscientious family man, liked and appreciated by colleagues and his boss. He was also known to be an outrageous braggart, which perhaps led the police to later disbelieve his claims to be the Strangler.


3 September 1930 - Albert DeSalvo born14 June 1962 - First victim killed17 January 1964 - Edward Brooke, law enforcement officer investigates murders10 January 1967 - Albert DeSalvo tried in court4 January 1964 - last victim killed26 November 1973 - DeSalvo stabbed to death in prison2001 - DeSalvo’s body exhumed for DNA testsVictims 14 June 1962 - Anna E Slesers, 55 28 June 1962 - Mary Mullen, 85 30 June 1962 - Nina Nichols, 68 30 June 1962 - Helen Blake, 65 19 August 1962 - Ida Irga, 75 20 August 1962 - Jane Sullivan, 67 5 December 1962 - Sophie Clark, 21 31 December 1962 - Patricia Bisette, 23 9 March 1963 - Mary Brown, 68 6 May 1963 - Beverly Samans, 23 8 September 1963 - Evelyn Corbin, 58 23 November 1963 - Joann Graff, 23 4 January 1964 - Mary Sullivan, 19

The Arrest

After a spell in prison for breaking and entering, DeSalvo went on to commit more serious crimes. Having broken into a woman’s apartment, he tied her up on the bed and held a knife to her throat before molesting her and finally running away. The victim gave the police a good description, one that fitted his likeness sketch from his previous crimes. Shortly afterwards DeSalvo was arrested.It was after he had been picked out of an identity parade that DeSalvo admitted to robbing hundreds of apartments and carrying out a couple of rapes. He then confessed to being the Boston Strangler.Despite the police not believing him at the time DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital to be assessed by psychiatrists. He was assigned an attorney by the name of F Lee Bailey. When DeSalvo’s wife was told by Bailey that her husband had confessed to being the ‘Strangler’ she couldn’t believe it and suggested he was doing it purely for payment from the newspapers.During his spell in Bridgewater, DeSalvo struck up a friendship with another inmate, an intelligent but highly dangerous killer called George Nassar. The two apparently had worked out a deal to split reward money that would go to anyone who supplied information to the identity of the Strangler. DeSalvo had accepted that he would be in prison for the rest of his life and wanted his family to be financially secure.Bailey interviewed DeSalvo to discover if he really was the notorious killer. The attorney was shocked to hear DeSalvo describe the murders in incredible detail, right down to the furniture in the apartments of his victims.DeSalvo had it all worked out. He believed he could convince the psychiatric board that he was insane and then remain in prison for the rest of his life. Bailey could then write up his story and make much needed money to support his family. In his book 'The Defence Never Rests', Bailey explains how it was that DeSalvo managed to avoid detection. DeSalvo was Dr Jekyll; the police were looking for Mr Hyde.After a second visit and listening to DeSalvo describe in grisly detail the murder of seventy-five year old Ida Irga, Bailey was convinced his client was the Boston Strangler. When he asked DeSalvo why he chose a victim of such an age, the man coolly replied "attractiveness had nothing to do with it".After many hours of questioning and going into minute detail of what the victims wore or how their apartments looked, both Bailey and the police were convinced that they had the killer. One disturbing revelation was when DeSalvo described an aborted attack on a Danish girl. As he was strangling her he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Horrified by the ghastly vision of what he was doing he released her and begged her not to tell the police before fleeing.

The Crimes

Anna Slesers, a seamstress and devout churchgoer was the first victim to be murdered on the evening of 14 June 1962. She lived on her own in a modest brick house apartment on 77 Gainsborough St in Boston’s bedsit land. Her son Juris was meant to call by to pick her up for a memorial service. When he discovered her body in the bathroom with a cord around her neck tied in a bow, Juris assumed she had committed suicide.Homicide Detectives James Mellon and John Driscoll found her in an obscene state; nude and stripped of dignity. She had been sexually assaulted. The apartment looked as though it had been ransacked with Anna’s purse and contents strewn on the floor. Despite what appeared to be a robbery, a gold watch and pieces of jewellery were left behind. The police settled on the hypothesis that is was a botched burglary.Just under three weeks later on 28 June 1962, eighty-five year old Mary Mullen was also found murdered in her home. Two days later the body of sixty-eight year old Nina Nichols was also discovered in the Brighton area of Boston. Again, it appeared to be a burglary despite valuable silver having been left untouched. The ransacking didn’t seem to make sense to detectives.Nichols was also found in a state of undress, her legs wide open and her stocking tops tied in a bow. Was this the trademark of the same killer?Then, on the same day a second body was discovered a few miles north of Boston in the suburb of Lynn. Helen Blake was a sixty-five year old divorcee. Her murder was more gruesome. She had suffered lacerations to her vagina and anus. Again the bow trademark was evident; this time made from tying her bra around her neck. Like the previous crimes, the scene appeared to be a burglary.After this brutal slaying the penny dropped that what Boston had in its midst was a psychotic serial killer. Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara cancelled all police leave due to the severity of the situation and a warning went out via the media to Boston’s female population. They were advised to lock their doors and be cautious of strangers.It wasn’t long before McNamara’s fears were realised. A fourth brutal slaying took place at 7 Grove Garden in Boston’s West End on 19 August. The victim was seventy-five year old widow Ida Irga. Again she had been strangled. She lay on her back on the floor wearing a brown nightdress, which was ripped and exposed her body. Her legs were apart and resting on two chairs and a cushion had been placed under her buttocks. Again there was no sign of forced entry.Less than 24 hours later the body of Jane Sullivan was found not far from the previous victim at 435 Columbia Rd in Dorchester. The sixty-five year old nurse had been murdered a week before and was found dead in the bathroom. She had been strangled by her own nylons.Terror spread throughout Boston with fears of another attack, but the Strangler wasn’t to strike until three months later. This time the victim was young.Twenty one year old Sophie Clark was an African-American student who was very security conscious and rarely dated. Her body was found on 5 December 1962, a few blocks away from the first victim, Anna Sleser. Sophie was found nude and had been sexually assaulted. She had been strangled by her own stockings and semen was discovered for the first time. Somehow, despite Sophie having been a very careful woman, she had still let in the murderer.Although Sophie did not fit the same profile as the other victims, the police were sure it was the work of the same killer. Furthermore, this time they had a lead regarding the killer’s possible identification when a female neighbour informed the police that a man had knocked on her door insisting that he had been sent to paint her apartment. He finally left after she told him that her husband was sleeping in the next room.Three weeks later another young woman’s life was to end tragically. Twenty three year old Patricia Bissette was pregnant when she was found dead in her apartment – again near the vicinity where Anna Slesers and Sophie Clark had lived. Bissette was discovered by her boss when she didn’t turn up for work. Her body lay in her bed covered by sheets, but she had been sexually assaulted and strangled with her own stockings.While the city appeared to have been spared another attack for several months, the police desperately tried to find any connection between the women and people they may have known. Every sex offender on the Boston Police files was interviewed and checked yet still nothing turned up.Then a series of murders started again. This time the body of sixty-eight year old Mary Brown was found strangled and raped twenty-five miles north of the city in March 1963.Two months later the ninth victim associated with the same madman was to be Beverly Samans. The twenty-three year old graduate had missed choir practice on the day of her murder on Wednesday, 8 May 1963.Samans was found with her hands tied behind her back with one of her scarves. A nylon stocking and two handkerchiefs were tied around her neck. Bizarrely a piece of cloth over her mouth hid a second cloth which had been stuffed in her mouth. Four stab wounds to her neck had most likely killed her rather than strangulation.There were a further twenty-two stab wounds to Samans’ body, eighteen in the shape of a bulls-eye on her right breast. She had been raped, but there was no evidence of semen. It was thought that because of her strong throat muscles due to singing, the killer had to taken to stabbing her instead of strangulation.The police, who were now desperate, even sought the help of a clairvoyant. He described the killer as being a mental patient who had absconded from Boston State Hospital on the days the killings took place. However, this was soon discounted when another murder was committed. On 8 September 1963, in Salem, Evelyn Corbin, a young looking fifty-eight-year-old divorcee became the latest victim.Corbin was found nude and on her bed face up. Her underwear had been stuffed in her mouth and again there were traces of semen, both on lipstick stains and in her mouth. Corbin’s apartment had been ransacked in a similar fashion.On 25 November, Joann Graff, a twenty-three year old industrial designer, was raped and killed in her apartment in the Lawrence section of the city. Several descriptions of her attacker matched those of the man who had asked to paint Sophie Clark’s neighbour's flat. The description detailed a man wearing dark green slacks, dark shirt and jacket.On 4 January 1964, one of the most gruesome murders was discovered when two women came across the body of their flatmate. Mary Sullivan was found dead sitting on her bed, her back against the headboard. She had been strangled with a dark stocking. She had been sexually assaulted with a broom handle. This obscenity was rendered even more disturbing by the fact that a Happy New Year card lay wedged between her feet. The same hallmarks of the killer were evident; a ransacked apartment, few valuables taken and the victims strangled with their own underwear or scarves, which were tied into bows.The city was panic stricken and the situation prompted the drafting in of a top investigator to head the hunt for the Strangler. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the state, began work on 17 January 1964 to bring the serial killer to book. Pressure was on Brooke, the only African-American Attorney General in the country, to succeed where others had failed.Brooke headed up a task-force that included assigning permanent staff to the Boston Strangler case. He brought in Assistant Attorney General John Bottomly, who had a reputation for being unconventional.Bottomly’s force had to shift through thousands of pages of material from different police forces. Police profiling was relatively new in the early sixties but they came up with what they thought was the most likely description of the killer. He was believed to be around thirty, neat and orderly, worked with his hands and was most likely a loner who may be divorced or separated.Actually finding the killer came about through chance rather than any member of the police force tracking him down.

The Aftermath

DeSalvo was incarcerated in what is now known as MCI-Cedar Junction prison in Massachusetts. In November 1973 he got word to his doctor that he needed to see him urgently. DeSalvo had something important to say about the Boston Strangler murders. The night before they were to meet DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison.

Because of the level of security in the prison it is assumed that the killing had been planned with a degree of co-operation between employees and prisoners. Whatever the case, and although there were no more murders by the ‘Strangler’ after DeSalvo had been arrested, the Strangler case was never closed.

In 2001, DeSalvo’s body was exhumed and DNA tests were taken and compared to evidence taken from the last Strangler victim, Mary Sullivan. There was no match. Although this only proved that DeSalvo had not sexually assaulted Ms Sullivan it didn’t rule out his involvement in her murder.

The family of DeSalvo and the nephew of Mary Sullivan continue to believe in Albert DeSalvo’s innocence of the murders of thirteen women. They are convinced that the killer is still alive. Despite calls from both families for evidence to be brought forward so they can reactivate lawsuits, the state of Massachusetts has so far declined.

The Key Figures

Edward Brooke - Attorney General (brought in to head the hunt for the Strangler)John Bottomly - Assistant General. (A maverick investigator set up task force)Irmgard Beck - Albert DeSalvo’s German wifeF Lee Bailey - DeSalvo’s AttorneyGeorge Nassar - Killer and prison associate of DeSalvo

The Trial

One of the biggest problems regarding this case was the amount of people who believed that DeSalvo was innocent. Despite his own confessions there seemed to be no physical evidence linking him to the murders. DeSalvo also possessed a prominent beak-like nose, which no witnesses remembered.Two female witnesses, Marcella Lulka and Gertrude Gruer were called to identify DeSalvo. Lulka had lived in the same block as murder victim Sophie Clark and had been approached on the day of Clark’s murder by a man calling himself ‘Mr Thompson’ who said he had been sent to paint her apartment. The second witness Gruer was the only victim to escape from the Strangler.Both women couldn’t identify DeSalvo, but ironically they were disturbed when they caught sight of fellow prisoner George Nassar in the same building. Nassar’s posture, movements and physical features were familiar to the stunned women. Ironically this revelation did not go any further.Could it be that DeSalvo realised that he could win fame and money for his family by claiming to be the Strangler?It was discovered after several tests that DeSalvo had a photographic memory. It is possible that he could have read every detail of the murders and the circumstances in journals such as the Record American which printed a chart of such facts. DeSalvo may have also broken into the victim’s apartments after they had been killed. But the most contentious aspect was the fact that the murders appeared not be have been committed by the same person. Some of the victims had been old, while others were young. Some had been raped while others had been strangled and then left in degrading positions. Serial killers tend to stick to the same pattern and not deviate in their modus operandi.DeSalvo’s attorney was determined to try and protect his client from going to the electric chair.DeSalvo’s confession was inadmissible in court and Bailey felt there were enough indictments against his client in relation to his history of break-ins and assaults that would put him away in prison for life, rather than see him executed for being the Strangler.On 10 January 1967, Albert DeSalvo was tried. Bailey would try to get the jury to convict DeSalvo on his crimes related to what was known as the ‘Green Man’ attacks when he broke into apartments and molested women. His confession that he had committed thirteen murders would, Bailey hoped, confirm his insanity.Victims of DeSalvo’s ‘Green Man’ crimes were called. Evidence was heard that DeSalvo had broken into their homes, tied them up and sexually molested, but not raped them. He had then departed after the attacks.Bailey pressed for a verdict that would take into consideration DeSalvo’s sanity at the time of the assaults. An expert witness testified that DeSalvo was a schizophrenic and that he knew what he was doing in order to get into apartments, but could not control his sexual urges.The jury eventually found DeSalvo guilty on all counts and he was sentenced to life imprisonment but denied psychiatric help.Bailey was disappointed that DeSalvo would not receive treatment as he believed this was a unique opportunity to get inside the mind of a killer and discover the triggers or reasons which lead to murder.