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Albert DeSalvo

Notable Fact
He would usually rape the woman while she was dying or dead, and violently assault her with various objects, among them a wine bottle and a broom handle.

Of all the serial murderers in the history of the United States, none has ever evoked more widespread terror than the man who became known as the Boston Strangler. From 1962 to 1964, women of all ages and backgrounds who lived in Boston and the surrounding towns lived in fear. The police were in a state of anxiety and frustration. The only people who likely welcomed the presence of the Strangler were those who ran home security and personal defense businesses.

On June 14, 1962, the body of Anna Slesers, a young-looking fifty-five-year-old woman, was discovered in her apartment at 77 Gainsborough Street in Boston by her son Juris. She was lying on her back in the hall, a little blood underneath her head and a rope around her neck with the loose ends forming a sort of bow. Juris, unaccountably, assumed that she had hanged herself on the bathroom door and fallen. A police officer at first concurred, but subsequent investigation determined otherwise. In fact, she had been murdered, and her body had been arranged in a certain way. Her legs were spread very wide, with one leg hiked up at the knee. And she had been both sexually assaulted and a foreign object forced into her body. The police knew that they were dealing with someone bizarre.

A Second Victim

Two weeks later, on a very hot June 30, the body of sixty-eight-year-old Nina Nichols was discovered in her apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. The gray-haired physiotherapist, who was in good physical condition, was found posed in a similar position to Anna Slesers. She was on her back with her legs spread and had been sexually assaulted with a foreign object. She had been strangled, ferociously, with a pair of her own stockings, and the loose ends of the excess stockings on the floor had been arranged in a bow shape.

The police immediately suspected that the person who had killed Anna Slesers had also murdered Nina Nichols. Some officers were holding their breath, wondering whether - but mostly when - the killer would strike again.
They didn’t have too long to wait. On July 2, two women who lived at 73 Newhall Street in Lynn, a suburb north of Boston, decided to check on their neighbor Helen Blake. They had not seen Blake for a couple of days and feared that perhaps she was sick, though Blake, a sixty-five-year-old ex-nurse, had not complained of any maladies.

They decided to go into her apartment, number 90, directly across the hall from them. They got the key from the superintendent of the building and entered the apartment. Almost. They took one look at the apartment, which had been ransacked, and, too scared to go farther, called the police.

The police found Helen Blake on her bed, facedown. She had been violently strangled with her own stockings, her legs were spread wide, and her brassiere had been placed under her neck with the ends arranged to form a bow. She had been violated with a foreign object. Police theorized that she had been killed in the kitchen, then carried into the bedroom and her body assaulted there.

At the time, Boston and Lynn had different police departments with separate jurisdictions, but they were aware to some degree of what was going on in adjacent areas.

When the police commissioner heard about the body found in Lynn, he articulated what every officer was feeling. “Oh, God,” he said, “we’ve got a madman loose.”

The media started to fan the flames of public panic about the Strangler over the summer, but it appeared that the killer might have stopped - the rest of July passed without a killing, and the city relaxed a bit.

Then, the body of seventy-five-year-old Ida Irga was discovered on August 21 in her apartment on Grove Street in Boston. It was clearly the work of the Boston Strangler: Irga’s body was lying on her bed, her legs spread, a pillow under her buttocks, and her foot propped on the rungs of a chair and tied there. She had been sexually assaulted with a foreign object and her body had been placed so it faced the door and would be the first thing the person entering would see. The medical examiner calculated that she had been dead for two days.

Boston shivered despite the summer heat. The Strangler was back, and women started taking extraordinary precautions: not going anywhere without a companion, not letting anyone into their apartments, using three and four locks on their doors.

The Murders Continue

The police were under great pressure to solve the case and catch the killer, and in desperation they called in the FBI to educate their detectives on murders involving sexual assault. There was also a distinct feeling, almost 100 percent certainty on the part of the police, that the Strangler would strike again and would continue to kill until he was caught. They had to get the guy.

On August 30, the body of Jane Sullivan was found in her apartment at 435 Columbia Road in Dorchester, far away from Ida Irga’s apartment. Sullivan, a heavyset person, was found facedown in six inches of water in the bathtub in a half-kneeling position, her housecoat was thrown over her shoulders, her girdle pulled up on her back, her panties down about her ankles, and her buttocks exposed. She had been strangled with her own stockings. Her body was too decomposed to determine whether she had been sexually assaulted, but the way the body was found as well as the similarities to the other murders led police to believe that she had been.

It was also determined that she had died on August 20, which had a chilling implication. Ida Irga had been killed on August 19. The Strangler had killed both women in less than twenty-four hours.

The police efforts to track down the Strangler intensified, and police work went on around the clock. All the stops were pulled out: Hundreds of known sex offenders were rounded up, psychologists were called in to profile the killer, fifty detectives worked on the cases full-time and went door-to-door trying to get some sort of lead. They also had to track down numerous leads from Boston citizens: The crimes had brought out the slightly insane, the attention seekers, and what one officer called “the ray people” - they were sure they knew who the killer was because rays from outer space told them.

All the work seemed to be paying off - there were no killings in September or October, and Thanksgiving passed tensely but uneventfully.

Then, on December 5, 1962, the Strangler struck again - and this time, Boston’s anxiety level went through the roof. His victim deviated sharply from the profiles of his previous victims: She was not elderly and white but young and black. Serial killers rarely if ever deviate from their victim type, but the crime scene bore the unmistakable modus operandi (MO) of the Strangler: Sophie Clark was lying on the living room floor and her legs, in black stockings, were wide apart. She had been strangled with three pairs of her own stockings, knotted under the neck. There was a gag in her mouth. She had been sexually assaulted and, for the first time, police found seminal stains outside the body, on the floor next to it.

There were other scary differences. She did not, like other victims, live alone. In addition to the apartment being ransacked, there was evidence that there had been a struggle. Moreover, Sophie Clark was aware of and very scared of the Strangler - she had had an additional lock installed. Since there was no sign of forced entry, it meant that she had let the killer in.

How? Why? If he could get past the defenses of a person who was so prepared, maybe defenses didn’t work.

A Near Miss

This time, though, there was some luck, a possible solid lead. Police, as usual, were canvassing the neighborhood when they came across a woman who lived in another wing of the same apartment building as Sophie Clark. She said that on December 5 her doorbell had rung and she had opened the door to a man who identified himself as Thompson, who told her that the super had sent him to paint her apartment. The woman protested that she wasn’t due for painting, but the man brushed by her and entered the apartment. He told her she had a nice figure and that maybe she should get into modeling.

The woman thought fast: She put “her finger warningly to her lips,” as Gerold Frank wrote in his book The Boston Strangler. When “Thompson” gruffly asked what that was for, she said her husband was asleep in the bedroom. The man - whom she later described to police as having honey-colored hair, being perhaps twenty-five to thirty, and wearing a dark jacket and green work pants - quickly exited with no further discussion of painting.

It could have been the Strangler. As investigation revealed, the super hadn’t sent anyone to the woman’s apartment - but the police, hopeful though they were, couldn’t manage to track him.

The next Strangler victim was strangled with hosiery entwined with one of her blouses: Patricia Bissette was murdered on New Year’s Eve in 1962. She was in her locked apartment at 515 Park Drive in the Back Bay area, the same area where the first victim, Anna Slesers, and the most recent victim, Sophie Clark, had both lived. She was found in the bedroom, face up, but her legs, instead of being spread wide apart, had been placed close together by the killer. Her pajama top was pushed up to her shoulders and she was naked from the waist down. She had been sexually assaulted.

The Strangler’s longest killing gap occurred between the murder of Patricia Bissette and the next victim, Beverly Samans. Samans’s body was discovered in her apartment at 4 University Road on May 6, five months after Bissette’s murder. This crime was across the Charles River in Cambridge, meaning the Boston police, under siege from the media and the public, breathed a collective sigh of relief that the body hadn’t shown up in their jurisdiction. Samans, who was a rehabilitation therapist, was an atypical kill: She was the first and only victim who had been stabbed to death, innumerable times in the neck and chest. The killer had directed the knife thrusts into one breast in a bull’s-eye pattern.

Three more killings were to occur before the Strangler was through, with the same random victims and locations. On September 8, 1963, the body of fifty-eight-year-old Evelyn Corbin was found in her apartment on the first floor at 224 Lafayette in Salem. On November 23, the body of twenty-three-year-old Joann Graff was found in her home at 54 Essex Street in Lawrence. And on January 4, 1964, the youngest victim of all, nineteen-year-old Mary Sullivan, was found in her apartment at 44A Charles Street in Boston.

Catching the Strangler

The unraveling of the killer began in an unlikely place - with a prison snitch, a man named George Nassar. Nassar, who had been committed to Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, notified his attorney, the famed F. Lee Bailey, that one of the inmates was more than hinting that he was the Boston Strangler. Nassar wanted to talk with Bailey, who was in the process of making a big name for himself - he had just won a Supreme Court appeal reversing the conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard for killing his wife - about getting Nassar a deal for snitching.

The man Nassar fingered was Albert DeSalvo, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, well-built man who had been a middleweight boxing champion in the army. DeSalvo was twenty-nine years old, and in the institution for observation for having tied up and sexually assaulted a woman.

Bailey was doubtful; Bridgewater was for crazies. Nevertheless, one time when he was visiting Nassar, he decided to talk with DeSalvo. This first talk led to a second, when Bailey came armed with questions about the crimes to which answers had not been published. When Bailey repeated DeSalvo’s answers to the detective who gave Bailey the questions, the detective was impressed. Bailey became convinced that DeSalvo was, in fact, the Boston Strangler.

Some of the doctors at the hospital weren’t convinced, however - they thought Nassar’s psychological profile fit better with the crimes, and this led to a sort of debate over which one was the Strangler. Finally, DeSalvo agreed to talk with John Bottomly, a special assistant to the state’s attorney general, who had taken overall charge of the case.

Despite their differences - Bottomly was a child of privilege, while DeSalvo was a product of Boston’s mean streets - the two men got along well, and DeSalvo eventually detailed his crimes for Bottomly. Anyone reading the transcripts of what DeSalvo said could hardly doubt that he was, in fact, the Boston Strangler. He described in gruesome detail how he would talk his way into an apartment, posing, for example, as a handyman or plumber, and once inside would maneuver things so he could get behind a woman and choke her with his arm, then finish the job with her stockings or some other article of clothing. Then, he would arrange the body so the legs were wide. The bow left in the ligature, he said, was just a way of tying; it had no special significance. DeSalvo would usually rape the woman while she was dying or dead and violently assault her with various objects, among which were a wine bottle and a broom handle.

When Bottomly started to talk with DeSalvo, he assumed there were only eleven victims - but DeSalvo revealed two more that the police didn’t know about because the case did not include evidence of strangling.

One other victim was Mary Brown of 319 Park Avenue in Lawrence. For some reason - he had no idea why - on March 9, 1963, DeSalvo had battered her to death with a pipe he found on the premises.

The other murder seemed, for some reason, particularly savage and sad, a standout even among all the other savagery DeSalvo had wrought. He had talked his way into the apartment of eighty-five-year-old Mary Mullen of 1435 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. He described to Bottomly how he got behind the elderly woman and grabbed her around the neck, and the next thing he knew, she slumped in his arms and he knew she was dead. And she was, having expired of a heart attack. He put her on the couch and left, and no one had ever suspected that it was a murder.

The Life of Albert DeSalvo

An investigation into DeSalvo’s background revealed a predictably unsavory past. He came from a family of three boys and two girls; the boys were in and out of reform school and prison, as was his father, a savage brute who beat his wife and kids and openly hired prostitutes. The family was always on welfare.

Albert DeSalvo married a German immigrant named Irmgard, and they went on to have two children, a boy and a girl. They lived a typical suburban life in Malden, a suburb of Boston. DeSalvo called Irmgard frigid, but in the face of his sex drive a nymphomaniac would have been frigid. He would have sex with her in the morning, on his lunch break from his job, in the early evening, and before they went to sleep. On weekends he would have relations with her five or six times a day. They had sexual relations more than thirty times a week. This did not stop DeSalvo from making lascivious comments to attractive women while he and his wife were together.


For a time there was a debate not only over whether DeSalvo was the Strangler but also over whether he was insane. Despite his confession, the prosecutors were worried that a jury might find him insane and not responsible for his crimes. After all, all they really had was DeSalvo’s own incriminating statements - there was no physical evidence. F. Lee Bailey’s goal was not to free DeSalvo but to get him treatment, so a compromise was finally reached. DeSalvo was tried on other sexual assault and robbery charges and was found guilty. The judge remanded him to Bridgewater State Hospital until his appeal was heard.

His hospitalization did not put an end to the debate on whether Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, but one significant thing did happen when DeSalvo was out of the picture that convinced police they had the right man: No one else was killed with the Strangler’s modus operandi.

In January 1968, Boston got a brief scare from Albert DeSalvo - just a month after being convicted and sent to Bridgewater, he and two other inmates escaped. His attorney, F. Lee Bailey, said that DeSalvo had left a note at Bridgewater saying he was escaping to make public officials admit that he was the Boston Strangler. This could only mean one thing: He was going to kill again. Fortunately, he was recaptured a few days later in Lynn and was shipped off to Walpole State Prison.

In all his confessions, DeSalvo did not display a great deal of remorse - except once, when he spoke of the old woman Mary Mullen, and how he had grabbed her and she had died in his arms. Indeed, he wept bitterly over it. On November 26, 1973, prison officials discovered the body of Albert DeSalvo in his cell. He had been stabbed sixty-eight times.
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