Born on September 3, 1931, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, 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 Boston between 1962 and '64, most of whom were elderly and alone. He was killed in prison in 1973, after being sentenced to life.
In a short period between June 1962 and January 1964, a series of grisly murders took place in Boston. All the victims were women who had been strangled. The Boston slayings were blamed on one lone sociopath, and mystery still surrounds the case.
The "Boston Strangler" has been held accountable for around 11 of 13 murders of female victims. No one was actually tried for the Boston murders. But one Albert DeSalvo was—by the public at least—believed to be the man responsible. DeSalvo actually confessed to each of the 13 official Strangler murders. However, some doubt was shed on DeSalvo's claims by people who personally knew and worked with him.
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.
Albert DeSalvo, a well-built 29-year-old, had a history of breaking and entering. He had spent time in prison for 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. It seemed a harmless, albeit disturbing, pastime and DeSalvo spent 18 months in prison for such sexually oriented mischievousness.
DeSalvo had a tough upbringing. He was brought up with four siblings and his father was a wife-beating alcoholic. The boy became a delinquent and spent time in and out of prison for petty crime and violence.
Years after he had been discharged from the army for disobeying orders, he settled down and married his sweetheart, Irmgard Beck, a girl from Germany. They lived modestly and, despite Irmgard giving birth to a handicapped child, the family managed to sustain itself. Irmgard was aware that DeSalvo was highly sexed and tried to avoid intercourse for fear of having another handicapped baby. However, a healthy boy was born 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.
Anna Slesers, a seamstress and devout churchgoer was the first victim to be murdered on the evening of June 14, 1962. She lived on her own 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 Anna's 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. 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. 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 65-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, it was clear that Boston had in its midst 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. 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.
The 'Boston Strangler'
It wasn't long before McNamara's fears were realized. A fourth 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. 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 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.
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.
Twenty-one-year-old Sophie Clark was an African-American 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, 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's precautions, 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. 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 was to end a 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.
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 ninth victim associated with the same madman was to be Beverly Samans. The 23-year-old graduate had missed choir practice on the day of her murder on Wednesday, 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's 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. 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 Sophie Clark's neighbors 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. 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.
Investigation and Trial
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. 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 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 thirty, 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 finally running away. The victim gave the police a good description, one that fitted his likeness sketch from his previous crimes. Shortly afterwards DeSalvo was arrested.
It was after he had been picked out of an identity parade that DeSalvo admitted to robbing hundreds of apartments and carrying out a couple of rapes. He then confessed to being the Boston Strangler.
Despite the police not believing him at the time DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital to be assessed by psychiatrists. He was assigned an Attorney by the name of F. Lee Bailey. When DeSalvo's wife was told by Bailey 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 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.
DeSalvo was incarcerated in what is now known as the MCI-Cedar Junction prison 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 killing had been planned with a degree of co-operation between employees and prisoners. Whatever the case, and though there were no more murders by the Strangler after DeSalvo had been arrested, the Strangler case was never closed.
In 2001, DeSalvo's body was exhumed and DNA tests were taken and compared to evidence taken from the last Strangler victim, Mary Sullivan. There was no match. Though this only proved that DeSalvo had not sexually assaulted Sullivan, it did not rule out his involvement in her murder.
In July 2013, it was announced that DeSalvo's body would be exhumed yet again for re-evaluation using new forensic testing, with reports speculating that this new analysis could finally provide concrete proof of the Boston Strangler's identity.
The family of DeSalvo and a nephew of Mary Sullivan continue to believe in Albert DeSalvo's innocence of the 13 murders to which he confessed; they remain convinced that the killer is still alive.
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