History’s Mysteries: The terror spree of the Boston Strangler

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By Kristina Bostley
Campus News

It was not the streets of Boston that were dangerous for women of all ages in the early 1960s; it was their homes that were not safe. Between the years 1962 and 1964, 13 women were brutally beaten, molested, and murdered inside their own homes. Detectives determined that the same man committed at least 11 of the 13 murders, and thus the serial killer was dubbed “The Boston Strangler.”

A 55-year-old Latvian native, Anna Slesers, was the first victim, found in the bathroom of her third-story apartment in Boston. Her body had been deliberately rearranged and the belt of her bathrobe had been tied in a bow around her neck, and it was later determined she had been sexually assaulted.  Though there were no signs of forced entry, Slesers’ apartment looked as though the intrusion had been an attempted robbery; however, nothing seemed to be missing.

A few weeks later, 68-year-old Nina Nichols was found dead in her apartment, and the details of the case very closely resembled the murder of Anna Slesers. But rather than a bathrobe belt, a pair of Nichols’ stockings had been tied around her neck. That same day, the body of 65-year-old Helen Drake was discovered strangled to death with her stockings.

Panic began to spread through the Boston area. Because the method of operation was similar for all three murders, police attributed them all to one man. A few weeks later, the body of 75-year-old Ida Irga was discovered, strangled with a pillowcase, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Not even a day later, Jane Sullivan, a 67-year-old nurse living in Boston, was strangled to death with her stockings. Sullivan’s body was not discovered until over a week later, and because the body had been decomposing, physical evidence was hard to come by. Her apartment hadn’t been ransacked, leaving no doubt that murder was the intent of the intruder as opposed to robbery.HISTORY MYSTERY icon copy

Months later, the body of 21-year-old Sophie Clark was found in the apartment she shared with two roommates. Her body had been arranged much like the others, and she had been strangled with her nylon stockings. Later that month, 23-year-old Patricia Bissette was discovered dead in bed, sexually assaulted with stockings and a blouse tied around her neck. A few more months passed without incident until the body of 67-year-old Mary Brown was discovered in her apartment, raped and strangled.

Two months after that, 23-year-old Beverly Samans was discovered dead in her apartment. It was assumed that she had also been strangled, but in fact she had been stabbed 22 times, four times in the throat alone. Several months later, the bodies of 58-year-old Evelyn Corbin, 23-year-old Joann Graff, and 19-year-old Mary Sullivan were all found raped and strangled.

Albert DeSalvo was a 29-year-old man with a criminal record for breaking and entering and robbery. When he was arrested in November 1964, he confessed to breaking into hundreds of apartments and assaulting 300 women in four different states. He was placed in a state hospital for psychiatric observation. In March 1965, DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler. He confessed to the murders of the 11 women plus two additional women whose murders had not been previously attributed to the same killer as the others.

There were some fears that DeSalvo’s confession was fabricated and that he only wanted the fame associated with being the Boston Strangler. There was no physical evidence at that time connecting DeSalvo to the murders; his confession was the only link authorities had tying him to the case. Even some of the details he provided did not match those of the murders he was confessing to. However, the panicked population of Boston was begging to place the blame for the gruesome murders, and DeSalvo had confessed.

DeSalvo and his lawyer pled guilty to the murders by reason of insanity. The jury found him not guilty and mentally sane. However, because of his other crimes which he was found guilty of, he was sentenced to life in prison. In 1973, he was found fatally stabbed in his jail cell.

For a long time, even though no evidence directly linked DeSalvo to the murders, it was assumed that he was the Boston Strangler. But as the years went on, families of the deceased began to doubt that DeSalvo was responsible for all of the murders. There was a book written by Gerold Frank about the murders, which was adapted into a movie that was released in 1968. Susan Kelly wrote another book in 2002 titled “The Boston Stranglers” in which she claimed that DeSalvo could not possibly have been responsible for all of the murders he confessed to.

Robert Ressler of the FBI claimed, “You’re putting together so many different patterns here that its inconceivable behaviorally that all these could fit one individual.” These doubts fueled the fire enough to reopen the investigation to determine whether modern advances could shed any more light on the Boston Strangler. Physical evidence was needed to investigate further, so in 2001 the body of Mary Sullivan was exhumed for additional testing. DNA testing at that time led investigators to believe that DeSalvo was not responsible for Sullivan’s rape and murder.

But that’s not quite where the story ends. Additional DNA testing in 2013 revealed that DeSalvo had most likely been telling the truth. His DNA was almost identical to DNA evidence found in samples from Sullivan’s body. “We may have just solved one of the nation’s most notorious serial killings,” said Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general.

But is it really solved? A near-certain match is not the same thing as an exact match. And even if it had been, is it certain that all eleven Boston Strangler victims were killed by the same person? Mary Sullivan was the final victim of the Boston Strangler. What suddenly brought the nearly two-year strangling spree to a halt? Although it seems almost certain that DeSalvo raped and strangled Mary Sullivan, questions still surround the case as to whether DeSalvo was in fact responsible for all of the Boston Strangler murders.

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