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Boston Strangler

The Boston Strangler is a name given to the murderer (or murderers) of 13 women in the Boston area, in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, in 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 last murder victim. Since then, parties investigating the crimes have suggested that the murders (sometimes referred to as "the silk stocking murders") were committed by more than one person.


  • Names 1
  • Victims 2
  • Events 3
  • Confession 4
  • Doubts 5
  • DNA evidence 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • References 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • External links 10


Initially the crimes were assumed to be the work of one unknown person, dubbed "The Mad Strangler of Boston."[2] The July 8, 1962, edition of the Sunday Herald, in an article titled "Mad Strangler Kills Four Women in Boston," declared in its opening paragraph, "A mad strangler is loose in Boston."[3] The killer was also known as the "Phantom Fiend"[4] or "Phantom Strangler"[5] due to the uncanny ability of the perpetrator 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 DeSalvo's confession was aired in open court, the name "Boston Strangler" had become part of crime lore.


  • Anna E. Slesers, 55, 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 St., Back Bay, Boston[8]
  • Mary Mullen, 85, died from a heart attack, but in the confession was said to have collapsed as DeSalvo grabbed her; found on June 28, 1962 in her apartment at 1435 Commonwealth Ave., Boston[8]
  • Nina Nichols, 68, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on June 30, 1962 in her home at 1940 Commonwealth Ave., Boston[8]
  • Helen Blake, 65, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on June 30, 1962 in her home at 73 Newhall St., Lynn, Massachusetts[8]
  • Ida Irga, 75, sexually assaulted and strangled; found on August 19, 1962 in her apartment at 7 Grove Street, Beacon Hill, Boston[8]
  • Jane Sullivan, 67, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on August 21, 1962 in her home at 435 Columbia Road, Dorchester, Boston[8]
  • Sophie Clark, 20, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on December 5, 1962 in her apartment at 315 Huntington Ave., Back Bay, Boston[8]
  • Patricia Bissette, 23, strangled with her nylon stockings; found on December 31, 1962 in her home at 515 Park Drive, Back Bay, Boston[8]
  • Mary Brown, 69, raped, strangled, beaten and stabbed; found on March 6, 1963 in her apartment at 319 Park Ave., Lawrence, Massachusetts[8]
  • Beverly Samans, 23, stabbed to death; found on May 6, 1963 in her home at 4 University Road in Cambridge, Massachusetts[8]
  • Evelyn Corbin, 58, raped and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on September 8, 1963 in her home at 224 Lafayette St., Salem, Massachusetts[8]
  • Joann Graff, 23, strangled with her nylon stockings; found on November 23, 1963 in her apartment at 54 Essex St., Lawrence, Massachusetts[8]
  • Mary Sullivan, 19, sexually assaulted and strangled with nylon stockings; found on January 4, 1964 in her apartment at 44-A Charles St., Boston[8]

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.[9][10]


Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, 13 single women between the ages of 19 to 85 were murdered in the Boston area. Most were sexually assaulted and strangled in their apartments by what was assumed to be one man. 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. Despite the enormous media publicity that would presumably have discouraged women from admitting strangers into their homes after the first few murders, the attacks continued. Many residents purchased tear gas and new locks and deadbolts for their doors.[2] Some women left the area altogether.

The murders occurred in several cities, making overall jurisdiction over the crimes unclear. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke helped to coordinate the various police forces.[2][11] He controversially permitted psychometrist Peter Hurkos to use his alleged extrasensory perception to analyze the cases, for which Hurkos claimed a single person was responsible.[2] When Hurkos provided a "minutely detailed description of the wrong person," the press ridiculed Brooke.[11] While the police were not convinced that all the murders were the actions of one person, much of the public believed so; the connection between a majority of the victims and hospitals was widely discussed.[2]


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 then suddenly left, saying "I'm sorry" as he went. The woman's description of her attacker led police to identify the assailant as Albert 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 stranglings. It was only after he was charged with F. Lee Bailey, who also took on DeSalvo's case. The police were impressed at the accuracy of DeSalvo's descriptions of the crime scenes. Though there were some inconsistencies, DeSalvo was able to cite details which had not been made public. However, there was no physical evidence to substantiate his confession. As such, he stood trial 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 the confession to the stranglings 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. The next day he gave himself up. Following the escape he was transferred to the maximum security Walpole State Prison where, six years later, he was found stabbed to death in the infirmary. His killer or killers were never identified.


Prior to DNA confirmation in 2013, doubts existed as to whether DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. At the time he confessed, people who knew him personally did not believe him capable of the vicious crimes. It was also noted that the women killed by "The Strangler" came from different age and ethnic groups, and that there were different modi operandi.

In 1968 the medical director of Bridgewater State Hospital, Dr. Ames Robey, insisted that DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler, calling him "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 the stranglings.[12]

DeSalvo's attorney Bailey believed that his client was the killer, describing the case in The Defense Never Rests (1995).[2] Susan Kelly, author of the 1996 book The Boston Stranglers, accessed the files of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts "Strangler Bureau". She argues that the stranglings were the work of several killers rather than a single individual. Another author, former FBI profiler Robert Ressler, said that "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."[13]

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

In 2000, attorney 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 stranglings occurred after that date. A former print journalist, Sharp assisted the families in their media campaign to clear DeSalvo's name, to assist in organizing and arranging the exhumations of Mary Sullivan and Albert H. DeSalvo, in filing various lawsuits in attempts to obtain information and trace evidence (e.g., DNA) from the government and to work with various producers to create documentaries to explain the facts to the public. Sharp pointed out 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, there was no semen in her vagina and that she was not strangled manually, but by ligature. Forensic pathologist Michael Baden observed that DeSalvo also got the time of death wrong – a common inconsistency with several of the murders pointed out by Susan Kelly. She continues to work on the case for the DeSalvo family.[14]

In the case of Mary Sullivan, murdered January 4, 1964 at age 19, DNA and other forensic evidence were used by Casey Sherman to try to track down her presumed real killer. Sherman wrote about this in his book A Rose for Mary (2003), stated that DeSalvo was not responsible for her death. For example, DeSalvo confessed to sexually penetrating Sullivan, yet the original forensic investigation revealed no evidence of sexual activity.[15]

DNA evidence

On July 11, 2013, Boston Police Department released information stating that they had discovered DNA evidence linking DeSalvo to the murder of Mary Sullivan.[16] DNA found at the scene was a "near certain match" to DNA taken from a nephew of DeSalvo. To determine conclusively that it was DeSalvo's, a court ordered the exhumation of his body in order to test his DNA directly.[17]

On July 19, 2013 Suffolk County DA Daniel F. Conley, Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley and Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis announced the DNA test results proving Albert Henry DeSalvo was the source of seminal fluid recovered at the scene of Sullivan's 1964 murder.[18]

In popular culture

  • The 1964 film, The Strangler was inspired by the (then unsolved) killings.[19]
  • The 1968 film The Boston Strangler starred Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo. Henry Fonda co-starred.
  • A 2008 film The Boston Strangler – The Untold Story, stars David Faustino as De Salvo.[20]
  • The 2010 movie "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. This fictional movie suggests that DeSalvo was not the only perpetrator of the Boston stranglings.
  • 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 meanwhile Lucas leaves town to attend a convention, Albert De Salvo -aka The Boston Strangler- decides to do more than just try to kill Merlyn.[21]
  • The Boston Strangler became 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, and was eventually revealed to have been committed by one of the original detectives investigating the case attempting to 'frame' the man he believed to be the real Boston Strangler.
  • He along with the Zodiac Killer are featured in Image comics' The Roberts.[22]
  • Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA compared the VCR to the Boston Strangler, by saying they had a comparable effect on the American public to the Strangler's effect on women.
  • A waxwork of Albert DeSalvo featured in an episode of the British comedy series John Christie and Jack the Ripper) comes to life in a fantasy sequence, trying to persuade the character David Sowerbutts to kill a man by strangling rather than methods suggested by the other waxworks. The others accused him of having several personalities, referencing the 1968 movie.
  • 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. Each character assumes the role of a major character in the investigation based on the case files of Jordan's father, Max Cavanaugh. The group determines that the two murders were copycats made to look like Boston Strangler killings.
  • There is a Boston hardcore band named The Boston Strangler.[23]
  • The Rolling Stones released Midnight Rambler on the album Let It Bleed in 1969. The song is a loose biography of Albert DeSalvo.


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  13. ^ The Boston Strangler 48 Hours Mystery, February 15, 2001. CBS News
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  15. ^ The Boston Strangler 48 Hours Mystery, February 15, 2001. CBS News Recent DNA Test Fails to Identify Boston Strangler, December 7, 2007
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  • 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.

External links

  • (still partly classified)
  • Albert DeSalvo – The Boston Strangler?
  • The Boston Strangler (Court TV's Crime Library)
  • The Boston Strangler
  • A Death in BelmontArticle about Sebastian Junger's Book TIME Magazine, 04/10/2006.
  • Works by or about (*) in libraries (WorldCat catalog) – * "De Salvo, Albert Henry" or The Boston Strangler, which are not distinct identities in WorldCat (or the Library of Congress) as of May 14, 2015
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