Who Was Albert DeSalvo?
Convicted criminal Albert DeSalvo was in and out of trouble with the police from an early age, but nothing as gruesome as the “Boston Strangler” case. DeSalvo admitted to murdering 13 women in the Boston area between 1962 and 1964, most of whom were elderly and alone. He was never charged, and although DNA evidence confirms he killed at least one of the victims, some have speculated the murders weren’t committed by just one person. DeSalvo was killed in prison in 1973, after being sentenced to life for other crimes.
FULL NAME: Albert Henry DeSalvo
BORN: September 3, 1931
DIED: November 25, 1973
BIRTHPLACE: Chelsea, Massachusetts
SPOUSE: Irmgard Beck
CHILDREN: Daughter and son
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Virgo
Early Life and Initial Crimes
Albert Henry DeSalvo was born on September 3, 1931, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. One of five siblings, DeSalvo had a tough upbringing. His father was an alcoholic who physically abused his mother, and according to Gerold Frank’s 1966 book The Boston Strangler, sometimes DeSalvo and his siblings. “He smashed me once across the back with a pipe,” DeSalvo said, according to an A&E True Crime article quoting from the book. “I just didn’t move fast enough.”
The boy, who learned to shoplift at 6 years old, became a delinquent and spent time in and out of prison for petty crime and violence. He also attended reform school.
DeSalvo joined the U.S. Army and became the middleweight boxing champion among the troops in Europe. While on a tour in Germany, he met Irmgard Beck, a girl from Germany. The couple married and returned to America. They lived modestly and, despite Irmgard giving birth to a daughter with physical disabilities, the family managed to sustain itself. Irmgard was aware that DeSalvo had a high libido and tried to avoid intercourse for fear of having another baby with a handicap. However, their second child was a healthy boy, 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.
However, by the time he was a well-built 29-year-old, DeSalvo had a history of breaking and entering. He had also begun a bizarre series of peeping tom 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. DeSalvo, who earned the nickname “Measuring Man,” spent 18 months in prison for the sexually oriented crimes. When he was not incarcerated, DeSalvo worked as a handyman and factory worker.
The Boston Strangler
Between June 1962 and January 1964, a series of grisly murders took place in the Boston area. All 13 victims were women, and all but two had been strangled (accordingly, the Boston Strangler is sometimes only considered responsible for 11 murders). The Boston slayings were blamed on one lone sociopath, dubbed “The Phantom Fiend” by the media, and controversy still surrounds the case.
What makes these particular murders stand out in the annals of serial killing is the fact that many of the victims were mature or elderly. The combination of old age, loneliness and vulnerability, adds to the brutality and tragedy of the events.
No one was actually tried for the Boston murders, partly due to lack of physical evidence. But DeSalvo is, by most of the public at least, believed to be the man responsible.
First Four Victims: Anna Slesers, Mary Mullen, Nina Nichols, and Helen Blake
Anna Slesers, a 55-year-old seamstress and devout churchgoer, was the first victim to be murdered on the evening of June 14, 1962. She lived alone in a modest brick house apartment at 77 Gainsborough St. in Boston. Her son Juris was meant to come 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 Slesers in an obscene state: nude and stripped of dignity. She had been sexually assaulted. The apartment looked as though it had been ransacked, with Slesers’ purse and contents strewn on the floor. Despite what appeared to be a robbery, a gold watch and pieces of jewelry were left behind. The police settled on the hypothesis that is was a botched burglary.
Just under three weeks later on June 28, 1962, 85-year-old Mary Mullen was also found murdered in her home. (The autopsy reported Mullen died of a heart attack.) Two days later, the body of 68-year-old Nina Nichols was also discovered in the Brighton area of Boston. Again, it appeared to be a burglary despite valuable silver that appeared 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.
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 65-year-old divorcee, and her murder was more gruesome. She had suffered lacerations to her genitals. 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, it was clear that Boston had a serial killer in its midst. Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara canceled all police leave due to the severity of the situation, and a warning went out via the media to Boston’s female population. Women were advised to lock their doors and be cautious of strangers.
Police profiling had already decided that in all probability they were looking for a psychopath, whose hatred of older women, may actually be linked to his own relationship with his mother.
August 1962 Victims: Ida Irga and Jane Sullivan
It wasn’t long before McNamara’s fears were realized. A fifth brutal slaying took place at 7 Grove Garden in Boston’s West End on August 19. The victim was 75-year-old widow Ida Irga. She had been strangled, and she was 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 65-year-old nurse had been murdered a week before and was found dead in the bathroom. She had been strangled by her own nylons.
Younger Victims: Sophie Clark and Patricia Bissette
Terror spread throughout Boston as the city feared another attack, but it was three months before the Strangler struck again. This time the victim was young.
Sophie Clark was a 21-year-old Black student who was very mindful of her safety and rarely dated. Her body was found on December 5, 1962, a few blocks away from the first victim, Sleser. Clark was found nude and had been sexually assaulted. She had been strangled by her own stockings, and authorities discovered semen for the first time. Somehow, despite Sophie’s precautions, she had still let in the murderer.
Although Clark 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. A female neighbor 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 ended tragically. Patricia Bissette, 23, was pregnant when she was found dead in her apartment near the area where Slesers and 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, and 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.
Early 1963 Victims: Mary Brown and Beverly Samans
Before long, a series of murders started again. This time the body of 68-year-old Mary Brown was found strangled and raped 25 miles north of the city in March 1963.
Two months later, the 10th victim, Beverly Samans, was found. The 23-year-old graduate had missed choir practice on the day of her murder, May 8, 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 22 stab wounds to Samans’ body, 18 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 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.
Final Victims: Evelyn Corbin, Joann Graff, and Mary Sullivan
On September 8, 1963, in Salem, Evelyn Corbin, youthful-looking 58-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 November 25, Joann Graff, a 23-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 Clark’s neighbor’s flat. The description detailed a man wearing dark green slacks, dark shirt, and jacket.
On January 4, 1964, one of the most gruesome murders was discovered when two women came across the body of their roommate. Mary Sullivan was found dead sitting on her bed, her back against the headboard. The 19-year-old 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 victim strangled with her own underwear or scarves, which were tied into bows.
Investigation, Jailhouse Confession, and Death
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 January 17, 1964, to bring the serial killer to book. There was pressure was on Brooke, the only Black 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 sift through thousands of pages of material from different police forces. Police profiling was relatively new in the early 1960s, but they came up with what they thought was the most likely description of the killer. He was believed to be around 30, neat and orderly, worked with his hands, and was most likely a loner who may be divorced or separated.
In fact, the killer ended up being found by chance, not by the work of the police force.
After a spell in prison for breaking and entering, DeSalvo went on to commit more serious crimes. He had broken into a woman’s apartment, tied her up on the bed, and held a knife to her throat before molesting her and running away. The victim gave the police a good description, one that matched his likeness sketch from his previous crimes. Shortly afterward, DeSalvo was arrested. After he had been picked out of an identity parade, DeSalvo admitted to robbing hundreds of apartments and carrying out a couple of rapes.
In 1965, while in police custody at Bridgewater State Hospital before his trial, DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler and committing all 13 murders. He was assigned an attorney by the name of F. Lee Bailey, who later represented O.J. Simpson, and assessed by psychiatrists. When Bailey told DeSalvo’s wife 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 1971 book The Defense 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 75-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 that “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. However, without anything but the confession to go on, police never brought charges against him.
In January 1967, the 35-year-old DeSalvo was convicted of sexual assault, burglary, and robbery in the unrelated case, and sentenced to life in prison. He was incarcerated at Walpole State Prison (now MCI-Cedar Junction) 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, however, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison.
Because of the level of security in the prison, it is assumed that the November 25, 1973 killing had been planned with a degree of cooperation 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.
Controversy and More Recent News
Despite his confession, people who personally knew and worked with DeSalvo shed doubt on his claims that he was the Boston Strangler. “Albert wasn’t an angel, but he wouldn’t go out and kill somebody,” Albert’s brother Richard DeSalvo told Newsweek in 2001. Skeptics have also pointed out that DeSalvo’s confession included false statements and information that could have come from other other sources.
Decades after the murders, the family of DeSalvo and a nephew of Mary Sullivan, the last Strangler victim, pushed for authorities to reopen the case and pursue forensic testing to determine whether DeSalvo was guilty or innocent. In 2001, DeSalvo’s body was exhumed, and DNA tests were taken and compared to seminal fluid found on or near Sullivan. At the time, there was no match.
In July 2013, after a forensic analysis revealed a familial match between the preserved DNA evidence and a nephew of DeSalvo, his body was exhumed yet again for re-evaluation. This time, findings confirmed the semen found belonged to DeSalvo. At the time, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said the result “leaves no doubt that Albert DeSalvo was responsible for the brutal murder of Mary Sullivan” and that he was “most likely” the Boston Strangler.
The notorious serial killer’s deeds have been the subject of several movies and books, including The Boston Strangler (1968) starring Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo and The Boston Stranglers by Susan Kelly, first published in 1995. In March 2023, Hulu released Boston Strangler, a film about two investigative journalists—played by Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon—who broke the story.
- Article Title: Albert DeSalvo Biography
- Author: Biography.com Editors
- Website Name: The Biography.com website
- Url: https://www.biography.com/crime/albert-de-salvo
- Access Date:
- Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
- Last Updated: March 17, 2023
- Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
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