This is a true story of a city held hostage for over 2 years by a person the police called a “homicidal manic” and a “mad man”. Now we know him as Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler. The terror began on was June 14, 1962. It was a cool summer day in Boston, about 60 degrees. Ann Slesers made her way home from her job as a seamstress. The 55-year-old divorcee entered her third story apartment in the Back-Bay area. Two hours later her son would discover her dead body on the kitchen floor, as he came to pick her up to go to church services at the Latvian Lutheran Church. (Star Gazette, 1962) She was lying on the floor with only a house coat on, its cord was garroted around her neck in a bizarre bow. There was no forced entry only a painter’s scaffold outside her window. (Nobbe, 1964)
Two weeks later, on June 30th, Nina Nichols had just arrived home that evening (a little after 5 p.m.) she had been out town. Her neighbors described her as a perky woman who loved to play tennis. She was in good physical condition, a young 68. She lived on the 4th floor, and because it was warm summer evening, she threw open the windows to get fresh air. Nina was discovered dead on her bedroom floor strangled with her own nylon stockings. It was 8 blocks away from Ann Slesers, Nina lived on Commonwealth Ave. She let her strangler into her home, as she was on the phone with her sister when the doorbell buzzed. She told her sister she would call her right back after she answered the door. She never called back.
On July 2nd, 61-year-old Helen Blake was discovered on her bedroom floor in Lynn, Massachusetts. She lived in an apartment building with neighbors that socialized daily. Annie Winchell and Margaret Hamilton knew each other’s sounds and routines down to knowing when the milk man set down two clinking bottles of milk outside the door. When they did not see her for a couple of days, they got a key and let themselves into her apartment. There they found Helen and called the police. She had been strangled with her nylons and bra. They were tied in a bow around her neck. All three victims murdered had been sexually assaulted.
Police commissioner Edmund McNamara declared, “We’ve got a madman loose”. (Frank, 2016) Locks were being purchased in mass quantities and at the pound all available dogs were being taken home to protect the women. Women were being warned to lock all doors and windows and not to let strangers in. Neither the Fuller Brush man nor the Avon ladies were being welcomed into women’s homes.
One week later 60-year-old widow Margaret Davis was found strangled by the killer’s bare hands. She lived in a hotel called the South End Hotel and was discovered when a chamber maid came into clean the room. Her clothes were thrown over chairs and all identification tags removed. The night before a man and woman registered under the aliases Mr. and Mrs. Byron Spanney. Grasping at straws to keep a frantic city calm, the police decided this might not be the strangler, but a romance gone bad.
On August 19th, widow Ida Irga 75, had a visitor to her Beacon Hill apartment. He strangled her with a pillowcase and left her dead in a chair. The next day Jane Sullivan, 67 was strangled in her bathtub. She lived in Dorchester. Her body was not discovered for about 10 days. Six women had been murdered with the following issues in common:
- All older women
- Lived alone
- Had worked in hospitals or been recently treated in a hospital
- No forced entry
- Sexual assault
- Strangled to death
- Most with garroted stockings or belt around their necks
There was a frantic search to determine if any male employees of local hospitals could be the killer. The search didn’t develop any leads. Dr. Robert Moore, assistant to the mental health commissioner stated, “The strangler might be an ordinary looking fellow who takes the subway to work every morning, and bowls one night a week with the office team.” (Star Gazette, 1962) As the terror in the city grew 150 detectives were assigned to find the strangler. The Boston Advertiser made a plea to the killer, “Don’t Kill again”, it began, “Come to us for help. You’re a sick man, you know it.” (Frank, 1966)
On December 5, 1962 the strangler claimed his 7th victim. 20-year-old coed, Sophie Clark was discovered in her 3-room apartment she shared with 2 other girls. Sophie broke the pattern of the strangler. She was young and black, she also had roommates. Initially there was speculation whether she was one of the stranglers victims. The city became more frightened. Now no woman was safe, neither young nor old, black nor white, they were all at risk. Sophie and her roommates attended Northeastern University during the day and worked as hospital technicians at night. She was strangled with her slip and a nylon stocking.
December 31, 1962 in the same Back Bay area that Ann Slesers and Sophie Clark lived, 23-year-old Patricia Bissette, was found in her home in Fenway. She was strangled with her 3 of her own nylons, garroted around her neck. She was naked from the breasts down. By January Boston was being held hostage by the strangler. Many viewed the sexual component in the murders akin to “Sodom and Gomorrah”. Boston’s fear came from an invisible mad man and their own puritanical roots, sprinkled with a newer Irish Catholic population. They had a Ward and Watch society that firmly regulated the sale of pornographic material. So, the city struggled with both with what they considered sexual deviance as well as a “phantom strangler”.
Mary Brown, 69, was raped, strangled, beaten, and stabbed; found on March 6, 1963 in her apartment. She was sprawled across her bed with two nylons knotted around her neck. She was murdered like the other 8 victims. The Elmira Star-Gazette was quoted saying, “It is like the anxiety London knew 74 years ago when Jack the Ripper was on the prowl.” (Star-Gazette, 1962)
January 1964 the investigation gets a new lead detective in John Bottomly. He was appointed by the attorney general Edward W. Brook when there were 15 unsolved murders of women in the Boston area. Bottomly was Harvard educated with a Law degree from Boston University. The public was frightened because with all the theories, no one knew who the strangler was. He hired a unit to specifically work on the unsolved cases.
They decided 10 of the slayings did not fit the stranglers M.O and were deemed not the Boston Strangler. Bottomly had a theory on who the strangler was, and for his theory to be correct his predator would have been picked up after the murder of Jane Sullivan for purse snatching. Making him unavailable for the murder of the Sophie Clark. Part of their theory is that the killer was murdering his own mother and the younger victims just did not fit the profile. The theory would provide wrong.
On May 6, 1963, 33-year-old Oliver Chamberlain went to visit his fiancée, 23-year-old Beverly Samans in Cambridge. He had received a note in his room from the Mary Vivien. She was the church organist at the Second Unitarian Church in Boston’s Back Bay area. She was worried about Beverly and thought he should check on her. Beverly was a music therapist for retarded children, and 2 days a week worked as a rehabilitation counselor at Medfield State Hospital. He had a key and discovered Beverly posed legs apart dead on her bed. A blood-soaked nylon stocking and two handkerchiefs were knotted around her neck. Her mouth was covered with a cloth and a scarfed stuffed in her mouth. She did not die from strangulation, she died from the 22 stab wounds. 4 wounds were on her neck and 18 in a bullseye pattern on her right breast.
Flora Manchester had Sunday breakfast regularly with her friend Evelyn Corbin. Then they went home, Evelyn got ready and went to church. Mrs. Manchester panicked one morning when someone tried to open her door with a key, but it would not work. She called Evelyn and asked, “Was that you?” Evelyn answered no and told her someone had just done the same to her door. That was the last communication anyone would have with Evelyn. When Evelyn did not show for breakfast, Mrs. Manchester took another neighbor with her and used the key she had for Evelyn’s apartment. There they found 58-year-old Evelyn Corbin raped and strangled with her own nylon stockings. She was posed open legged with her housecoat on her body, stockings garroted around her neck. At this point the Boston strangler had a signature a double half hitch knot, that was found on Evelyn’s body.
President John F. Kennedy’s funeral was November 23, 1963. That same day Joann Graff, 23, was strangled with her nylon stockings. She was in her apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Mary Sullivan had just days ago moved into her apartment on Charles street she was 19 years old, young and vibrant. She had two roommates, Pamela Parker and Patricia Delmore. On January 4, 1964 they came home to find their new roommate dead. She was posed on her bed in a horrific way with a charcoal colored stocking and a pink scarf around her throat tied into a big garish pink bow. A greeting card was next to her feet declaring, “Have a Happy New Year”. She had been sexually assaulted.
Those are the 10 murders attributed to the Boston Strangler. So how was he caught? Who was Albert DeSalvo? On October 27, 1964 a man entered a Cambridge woman’s house pretending to be a detective. He tied her up, assaulted her and left. She was newly married, and her husband had just left for work. She dozed off and when she awoke DeSalvo stood over her. He tied her up, assaulted her and asked, “How do I leave this place?”. He left a note of apology, but she had seen his face and would never forget it. It was her identification that led to the capture of DeSalvo. There is a common rumor that DeSalvo turned himself in, but he did not. She and a sketch artist made picture of DeSalvo. A policeman remembered him as the ‘measuring man’. Three years previously he was arrested for gaining entrance to women’s apartments and pretending to be a recruiter for a modeling agency. He got a kick out of measuring women. They called him the ‘measuring man’.
The police called DeSalvo down to their headquarters to answer a few questions. He denied attacking the woman, she positively identified him from a two-way mirror as she watched him speak. Within hours his photo went over the wires to anyone who had been a victim of sexual assault. In Connecticut he was know as the ‘green man’ as he wore green work pants. He was captured at his family’s home and taken back down to headquarters where other women from Connecticut were waiting to identify him.
He asked to be able to speak to his wife Irmgard DeSalvo and his sister Irene. The police allowed DeSalvo to explain his situation for an hour, without handcuffs, to the women in his life. He broke down, sobbing with his wife. He was confessing to rape, and insisting he never killed a woman. His wife was not surprised as she admitted he was insatiable sexually, though she was embarrassed to speak of it.
Albert DeSalvo admitted to 400 break ins to people’s apartments, and several other rapes. Women started coming forward describing familiar tales of being tied up and knives held to their throats. DeSalvo claimed responsibility for the rapes, cried and begged to be forgiven by the victims. It appeared he lacked the anger to be the strangler in the eyes of the police. In jail he began to exhibit hallucinations of his wife in his cell, it got so bad for DeSalvo on January 14, 1965 he was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital.
It was there he made friends with George Nassar another patient. He started talking and started confessing. March 7 a young attorney named F. Lee Bailey contact Irmgard DeSalvo in Denver where she ran to, escaping the publicity of Albert. Bailey volunteered help her as he was Albert DeSalvo’s attorney. He advised her to change her name and move away. Frank DeSalvo (Albert’s brother) got on the line with her and advised her to do what the attorney asked her to do. He revealed Albert DeSalvo had just confessed to be the Boston Strangler.
When the police interviewed Albert, he knew details only the killer could have known. He left DNA on Mary Sullivan; the significance was unknown at that time but would play a part in validating his guilt. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1967, where he died in November 1973. He was stabbed in the prison infirmary. Over the years there were many theories around the Boston Strangler. An attorney, Elaine Whitfield Sharp came forward to help the family of DeSalvo and Mary A. Sullivan. Mary Sullivan had a DNA sample at her murder, and in 2013 it was tested. The result was that the DNA sample was that of Albert DeSalvo.
There is a reason I have focused more on the victims that their killer. When the term serial killer was coined in the 1970’s, I lived among a few of them in the Northwest, including Ted Bundy. The media turned their stories into movies and books. They turned the murderers into celebrities while the victims were virtually forgotten. Albert DeSalvo was a homicidal maniac, he was killer, a predator, who raped and/or killed dozens of women. Their stories need telling not his.
Nobbe, George, (September 13, 1964), Has the Boston Strangler Been Unmasked at Last, Daily News, New York, New York, pp49-51, https://www.newspapers.com/image/460397100
Frank, Gerold, (1966), The Boston Strangler, Signet Publishing, [Amazon Digital Media] pp40-439
n.a., (September 16, 1962), City of Fear; Boston Strangler Poised Again? Star Gazette Elmira, New York, pp 43, https://www.newspapers.com/image/276853721/?terms=%2C%2BBoston%2BStrangler
staff, (December 6, 1962), 20 Year Old Coed, 7th Victim of the Boston Strangler, The Daily Times, New Philadelphia, Ohio, pp8, https://www.newspapers.com/image/86137265/?terms=%2C%2BBoston%2BStrangler
staff, (January 18, 1963), Berlin’s Best Dog Detective to Hunt Boston Strangler, Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California https://www.newspapers.com/image/342939555/?terms=%2C%2BBoston%2BStrangler
staff, (September 9, 1963), Boston Strangler Strikes Ninth Time, The Herald- Bulletin, Burley, Idaho, https://www.newspapers.com/image/567406190/?terms=%2C%2BBoston%2BStrangler
"New DNA Testing Ties Boston Strangler To 1964 Mary Sullivan Murder « CBS Boston". Boston.cbslocal.com. Retrieved July 12,2013.