The Boston Strangler was a serial killer and rapist who was active in Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1960s. Though a sex offender by the name of Albert DeSalvo claimed responsibility for the murders, which were also called the Nylon Stocking Murders, he was never convicted of them. He remains a major suspect for the murders, but there are doubts as to whether he was telling the truth.
Brief Case History
The first murder attributed to the Boston Strangler was committed on June 14, 1962. The victim was Anna E. Slesers, a 55-year-old seamstress. It was initially attributed to a suicide, but was then believed to have been the result of a botched robbery, even though several pieces of jewelry were found at the scene. Between that day and August 30, five more women were killed; the second, an 85-year-old, died of a heart attack while her attacker was trying to strangle her. All of those victims were middle-aged or elderly, the youngest being 55. The Strangler then appears to have stopped killing for a few months, returning on December 5. During this second round of murders, the victims were usually in their late teens or early 20s. At the last crime scene, that of Mary Sullivan on January 4, 1964, the killer left a Happy New Year card propped up against her left foot.
During the investigation, two psychics got involved with the task force in charge of the case, the "Strangler Bureau". The first, Paul Gordon, was an ad copywriter said to have ESP powers. He made a description of the killer of Anna E. Slesers which fit Arnold Wallace, a mental patient held at Boston State Hospital who had escaped on several occasions, most of which coincided with the Strangler murders. When he was consulted about the seventh Strangler murder, that of Sophie Clark, he, surprisingly, displayed detailed knowledge of her apartment and made a description that fit Lewis Barnett, who was an initial suspect in the murder. Nothing concrete came out of Gordon's advice. The second psychic, Peter Hurkos, was a well-known career psychic. He claimed to have assisted in the investigation and is confirmed to have been in Boston at the time of the investigation and to have spent time with the police, but a few days later, he was arrested for impersonating a police officer in order to gather information and later convicted of it. James A. Brussel, who previously had made a spot-on profile of the Mad Bomber in New York, aided the authorities. Unlike many contemporary and later psychologists and psychoanalysts involved in the case, he asserted that the murders were the work of a single man, attributing the changes in his behavior to changes in his regular life. In November of 1964, a convicted burglar named Albert DeSalvo (see below), was caught for an unrelated series of attacks and confessed to the Strangler murders.
Albert Henry DeSalvo was born on September 3, 1931 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His father, Frank DeSalvo, was a sadistic, violent, alcoholic fisherman from Newfoundland who brutally abused his wife, Charlotte DeSalvo, Albert and his five siblings, one brother and four sisters, and would regularly take home prostitutes and have sex with them in front of his family. Albert once saw him beat all of the teeth out of Charlotte's mouth and then break her fingers one by one. Frank also once sold all his children to a farmer in Maine for $9, though they managed to break out and return home, at which point Frank began teaching him to steal and encouraged him to do so. In 1943, aged 12, Albert was arrested for battery and robbery and was sent to a reform school. The next year he was paroled and got a job as a delivery boy. He was sent back to the same reform school for auto theft only two years later.
At the age of 17, after being released, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Europe, where he met a German woman, Irmgard Beck, whom he married and brought back to the States, where he did a second tour in the Army. During his second tour, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was arrested for molesting a nine-year-old girl, narrowly escaping conviction because her parents wouldn't press charges. In spite of his court-martial, he was honorably discharged in 1956. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested twice for robbery. He demanded sex from his wife six times a day and called her rigid if she refused. When their first child, a girl named Judy, was born with a pelvis disease, she kept their sex life to a minimum, afraid that any other children they might have might also have conditions. They eventually conceived a healthy son, Michael, together. In the time between DeSalvo's second discharge and March of 1960, he committed a series of attacks known as the Measuring Man crimes, during which he would pose as a talent scout from a modeling agency named "Johnson" in order to get inside women's homes and con them into undressing so he could pretend to take their measurements, fondling them while doing so. Though he confessed to the attacks when he was arrested for burglary, no charges for them were filed and he was sentenced to 11 months in prison for only the burglary charge.
After being released from prison, DeSalvo committed a series of home invasions known as the Green Man attacks. Dressed in green work-clothes, he would break into apartments belonging to women, tie them to their beds in a spread-eagle position at knifepoint, sexually assault them, and leave. A victim who was attacked on October 27, 1964 gave the police a description of the assailant, which led the investigators to DeSalvo and was published in newspapers, leading to more victims coming forward. Earlier on October 27, DeSalvo attempted to break into a home by posing as a motorist. In November, he was arrested for the assaults and confessed not only to them, but also to being the Boston Strangler. He made further confessions under hypnosis. Though his descriptions of the murders and the crime scenes had inconsistencies, he did know some details which had not been revealed to the public. In 1967, he was found guilty of the Green Man attacks and sentenced to life in prison as result of a plea bargain his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey (who later acted as defense for O.J. Simpson and Patty Hearst), made with the prosecution. In February of the next year, he escaped from his imprisonment together with two other inmates, but turned himself in to Bailey the next day. In 1973, he was found brutally stabbed to death in his cell. Nobody was ever found guilty of his murder.
Though he confessed to the Strangler murders, there are still some doubts as to whether DeSalvo's claims about them were credible. For one thing, his confessions were not completely consistent with the evidence; in many cases, he got the time of death wrong, sometimes he got whether the victim's death was caused by manual or ligature strangulation wrong, and in the case of Mary Sullivan, he stated that he had sexually penetrated her, and yet no semen was found on her body; she was, however, sexually assaulted with a broom handle. Additionally, there was no physical evidence linking DeSalvo to the murders and no witness could place him on any of the crime scenes. Because the victims varied widely in age, race, and social class, and the modi operandi in the attacks varied, some believe the murders to be the work of multiple killers; FBI profiler Robert Ressler agreed with this theory, also remarking that it is very implausible that a serial killer who murders thirteen women would simply stop killing in favor of sexual assaults. Additionally, DeSalvo was braggart and is believed to have exaggerated his confessions; according to Dr. Ames Robey, the psychiatrist who evaluated him, DeSalvo "wanted so badly to be the Strangler". One theory about why he would make a false confession is that he wanted to make money from it to support his family; he had told Bailey that he hoped to do so. On June 11, 2013, it had been announced that newly-discovered DNA evidence linked DeSalvo to the murder of Mary Sullivan, the last victim of the Strangler killings, and that authorities are having DeSalvo's body exhumed for further evidence. In July the same year, the authorities announced that a DNA comparison between DeSalvo and semen found at the Sullivan crime scene had confirmed that DeSalvo was the source.
The Strangler's victims were women of several different ethnicities and of widely varying ages; the youngest was 19 and the oldest 85. During the first phase of the killings, the victims were often older and during the second phase, younger. He entered their homes through home invasions, where he attacked them sexually. As the Strangler's nickname implies, the victims were killed by strangulation, usually with their own nylon stockings. Sometimes the killer constructed ligatures by weaving together a bunch of smaller ones. According to some sources, the Strangler also had a habit of tying the murder weapons and/or other handy lengths of fabric such as handkerchiefs around the victims' necks into a bow.
One thing that was later noted by profilers was that, though the murders attributed to the Strangler have similarities, there were differences between them:
- Some victims were posed, some were not.
- Some murders were brutal and aggressive while some were more clinical and efficient
- Some victims were physically raped while some were sexually assaulted with blunt objects from the house. Evelyn Corbin was forced to perform oral sex on her killer.
- A few victims were stabbed; Beverly Samans was killed solely by 25+ stab wounds, mostly around her right breast. The rest were not stabbed.
- Some victims were strangled with multiple ligatures while some were strangled using only one. One victim, Ida Irga, was killed by manual strangulation.
Note: The dates denote when the victims were found.
- June 14, Boston, Massachusetts: Anna E. Slesers, 55 (sexually assaulted with an unspecified object, non-fatally strangled with a belt, fatally strangled with the cord of her bathrobe, and tied it around her neck post-mortem)
- June 28, Boston, Massachusetts: Mary Mullen, 85 (indirectly; died of a heart attack when he attempted to strangle her)
- June 30:
- Boston, Massachusetts: Nina Nichols, 68 (sexually assaulted with a wine bottle and strangled with a nylon stocking; tied two stockings around her neck post-mortem)
- Lynn, Massachusetts: Helen Blake, 65 (sexually assaulted and strangled with a nylon stocking like the previous victim; tied the nylon and a bra around her neck post-mortem)
- August 19, Beacon Hill, Massachusetts: Ida Irga, 75 (sexually assaulted and manually strangled; a pillowcase was tied around her neck post-mortem)
- August 30, Boston, Massachusetts: Jane Sullivan, 67 (sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings)
- December 5, Boston, Massachusetts: Sophie Clark, 20 (sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings and a petticoat)
- December 31, Boston, Massachusetts: Patricia Bissette, 23 (raped and strangled with a ligature made of several interwoven nylon stockings and a blouse; was one month pregnant at the time of her death)
- March 9, Lawrence, Massachusetts: Mary Brown, 69 (raped, stabbed in the breasts with a fork, and strangled; fatally bludgeoned with a pipe)
- May 8, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Beverly Samans, 23 (stabbed four times in the neck and 22 times in the torso; two scarves and a nylon stocking were tied around her neck post-mortem)
- September 6, Salem, Massachusetts: Evelyn Corbin, 58 (raped, forced to perform oral sex, and strangled with two stockings)
- November 23, Lawrence, Massachusetts: Joan Graff, 23 (beaten, raped, and strangled with two nylon stockings and a black leotard)
- January 4, 1964, Boston, Massachusetts: Mary Sullivan, 19 (sexually assaulted with a broom handle and strangled with two scarves and a nylon stocking, then them around her neck post-mortem)
On Criminal Minds
The Strangler was mentioned in Tribute as one of the serial killers whose M.O.s were copied by Michael Peterson. In the episode, Prentiss erroneously names Albert DeSalvo as being the Strangler. Also, his habit of targeting women, attacking them through home invasions, and raping and then killing them through strangulation, is similar to the M.O. of Franklin Graney, a.k.a. The Tommy Killer, the unsub of Plain Sight.
- TruTV Crime Library articles about the Strangler
- About.com's article about DeSalvo
- Crime & Investigation Network's file about the Nylon Stocking Murders
- Biography.com's bio of DeSalvo and the Boston Strangler
- Law & Ordnance article about DeSalvo and the Strangler
- The Forensic Examiner online article about Dr. Brussel and his involvment in the Strangler investigation
- Boston.com article about the DeSalvo-Sullivan DNA link
- Evil Beyond Belief (2009)
- 101 Crimes of the Century (2008)
- The Killer Book of Serial Killers (2009)
- Boston Globe's article about the Boston Strangler's victims