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.