On January 18, 1967, Albert DeSalvo, the man now ubiquitously known as “The Boston Strangler”, was sentenced to life in prison for assault and armed robbery. Yet it is not these crimes for which he is infamous. Rather he is known for the murder of thirteen women throughout the Boston area.
The victims had all been raped or sexually assaulted and then strangled to death with pieces of their own clothing. After his arrest on the assault and armed robbery charges, DeSalvo admitted to all of the killings; however, he was never formally charged with murder, due to a lack of corroborative evidence. Even though the investigative team of police officers working on the case did not truly believe that he was responsible for the killings, still Albert DeSalvo’s name has been written in the annals of criminal history with the epithet “The Boston Strangler” or “The Silk Stocking Murderer”. And yet, to this day disturbing questions remain. Was he really the killer? And if not, how did he obtain his detailed knowledge of the crime scenes? Was he truly a psychotic danger to women and society as a whole? Or did he simply have a deluded notion of how to take care of his family? In order to try and answer these questions, we have to go back and look again at the crimes which caused panic across an entire city.
On the evening of June 14, 1962, Juris Slesers called at his mother’s home at 77 Gainsborough Street, a quiet, old-fashioned street in the Back Bay area of Boston. Having knocked twice on the door but getting no answer, Juris began to panic. His mother had sounded incredibly depressed when he had spoken to her earlier on the phone. Could she have been so depressed as to have done something silly? Or had she perhaps simply had a fall, and was lying hurt somewhere in the apartment? In desperation, Juris put all his weight behind the door and forced it open, only to find his worst fears realised. He found his mother, Anna E. Slesers, naked on the bathroom floor, the blue cord from his bathrobe around her neck. She was dead. Distraught, Juris called the police to report what he believed was his mother’s tragic suicide.
Homicide detectives James Mellon and John Driscoll were first on the scene. Mellon in particular, would always remember his first sight of Anna Slesers’ body.
“She lay outstretched, a fragile-appearing woman with brown bobbed hair and thin mouth, lying on her back on a gray runner. She wore a blue taffeta housecoat with a red lining, but it had been spread completely apart in front, so that from shoulders down she was nude. She lay grotesquely, her head a few feet from the open bathroom door, her left leg stretched straight toward him, the other flung wide, almost at right angles, and bent at the knee so that she was grossly exposed. The blue cloth cord of her housecoat had been knotted tightly about her neck, its ends turned up so that it might have been a bow, tied little-girl fashion under her chin”
To the detective’s trained eye they could see that the apartment, whilst looking as it had been ransacked, had merely been made to appear that way. A dustbin in the kitchen had been emptied out on the floor, the dresser drawers were open and a case of colour slides was on the bedroom floor. And yet the case had been placed there, carefully, and all Anna’s jewellery, money and a gold watch, had been left untouched.
The investigation revealed that Anna had been strangled with the cord of her bathrobe, which had then been tied in a bow. She had also been sexually assaulted with “some unknown object”. Police drew the conclusion that the crime had begun as a burglary, but that the perpetrator had been disturbed. When he saw Anna standing in her robe, he had been overcome by an uncontrollable urge to assault her. He then killed her to avoid her recognising him. Though this was the official line, the investigating officers were nervous. Already, even with only one killing, the pieces didn’t fit.
Two weeks later, on June 30, 68-year-old Nina Nichols was murdered in her apartment at 1940 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston. The apartment looked as if it had been hit by a hurricane. Every drawer was open, her possessions were scattered everywhere. However, in one drawer, there was a set of sterling silver which was untouched. Her purse still held all her money; an expensive camera stood on the dresser and she was still wearing her solid gold watch. Later it was determined that all this was for show. Nothing had been taken.
Unlike Anna Slesers, Nina was found clothed, although her housecoat and slip had been pulled up to her waist and her legs spread to leave her exposed. She too had been sexually assaulted and then strangled with her own silk stockings which, just like the cord around Anna’s neck, had been tied in a bow. The time of death was estimated to be 5 p.m.
The very same day, fifteen miles north of Boston, Helen Blake aged 65 met a similar fate at around 10 a.m. She had been strangled with her own stockings and her bra was tied in a bow over them. She too had been sexually assaulted and her apartment ransacked. However, this time, some items were missing. Two diamond rings had been pulled from her fingers and the killer had tried to force open a metal strongbox.
By January 1964, another 10 women – ranging in age from 85 to 19 – and living in various cities across the state of Massachusetts, had been killed at the hands of the man now being dubbed “The Strangler”. They had all been strangled with pieces of their own clothing, and had been left sexually exposed, on display. The city of Boston was in a constant state of panic and single women were sleeping with rows of bottles behind their doors, to act as a kind of early warning system. What they didn’t know though, something the police were reluctant to make public, was that whoever “The Strangler” was, he had not broken into any of his victims’ homes. There was never any sign of forced entry, leaving detectives with the conclusion that his victims had simply let him in.
It is important to bear in mind the violence of these crimes as we now turn our attention to the prime suspect: Albert DeSalvo.
A couple of years before the strangling murders even began, a series of bizarre sex offences took place in the Cambridge area of Boston. A man in his late twenties would knock at the door of a random apartment, and if a young woman answered he would introduce himself thus: “My name is Johnson and I work for a modelling agency. Your name was given to us by someone who thought you make a good model” The man would immediately hasten to add that the modelling would not be nude, but would merely be evening gowns and swimsuits. The pay was $40 an hour and he had been instructed to take the lady’s measurements, if the lady was interested of course. It seemed that a number of the women were not only interested, they were also extremely flattered that someone would think them good enough for swimsuit modelling, and so they allowed him inside to take out his tape measure and measure them.
When he was finished, he told them that if the measurements were suitable, a Mrs. Lewis from the agency would get in touch with them. Of course, given that neither Mrs. Lewis nor the agency ever existed, none of the women were ever contacted. Eventually, some of the women contacted the police.
On March 17, 1961, a man was caught trying to break into a house. When he was arrested, he not only confessed to attempted breaking and entering, but he also confessed to being “The Measuring Man”. His name was Albert DeSalvo.
The 29-year-old DeSalvo had a lengthy record of arrests, the vast majority of which were for burglary. He would break into houses or apartments and take anything he could lay his hands on or could easily carry. DeSalvo was married with two small children and worked as a press operator in a rubber factory.
When asked why he perpetrated this pathetic charade, he responded: “I’m not good-looking, I’m not educated, but I was able to put something over on high-class people. They were all college kids and I never had anything in my life and I outsmarted them.” DeSalvo was sentenced to 18 months. He was released early for good behaviour, just two months before the first strangling murder.
Albert DeSalvo was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 3, 1931. His parents, Frank and Charlotte had five other children. His father was a violently abusive man who regularly beat his wife and children. As a boy, Albert was delinquent, arrested more than once on assault and battery charges. Throughout his adolescence, he went through periods of very good behaviour and then lapses into petty criminality. His mother Charlotte remarried and did her best to keep her son out of trouble. Their relationship, aside from the disappointments she suffered when he got into trouble, was a reasonably good one.
He was in the Army from 1948 through 1956 and was stationed for awhile in Germany. There he met his wife, Irmgard Beck, an attractive woman from a respectable family. At one time, he was promoted to Specialist E-5, but later was demoted to private for failing to obey an order. He received an honourable discharge.
In 1955, he was arrested for fondling a young girl, but the charge was dropped. That year, his first child, Judy, was born. Judy had a physical handicap in the form of congenital pelvic disease. This problem had a large impact on DeSalvo’s home life.
Irmgard was terrified of having another child with a disability. Although she loved her husband dearly, this fear caused her to do anything she could to avoid sex. Nevertheless, sex did take place, albeit infrequently, and in 1960, the couple had a son, Michael. He was perfectly healthy, with no disability whatsoever.
Between 1956 and 1960, he had several arrests for breaking and entering. Each time, he received a suspended sentence. In spite of his brushes with the law, Albert seemed to stay employed. After working as a press operator at American Biltrite Rubber, he worked in a shipyard and subsequently as a construction maintenance worker. Most people who knew Albert DeSalvo liked him. His boss characterized him as a “good, decent, family man and a good worker.” A colleague said of him, “he was a very devoted family man and treated his wife with love and tenderness.”
Early in November of 1964, almost three years after he had been released from jail, DeSalvo was arrested again. This time, however, the charges were far more serious than breaking and entering and measuring prospective models for a fake modelling agency.
On October 27, a newly married woman lay in bed dozing just after her husband left for work. Suddenly, there was a man in her room who put a knife to her throat. “Not a sound or I’ll kill you,” he told her. He stuffed her underwear in her mouth and tied her in a spread eagle position to the bedposts with her clothes. He kissed her and fondled her, and then he asked her how to get out of the apartment. “You be quiet for ten minutes.” Then, bizarrely, he apologized and fled. The woman got a very good look at his face. After giving police the description, the sketch rendered by the police artist reminded the detectives of the “Measuring Man”.
DeSalvo was brought to the station where the victim was able to observe him through a one-way mirror. There was no doubt about it. He was the man. DeSalvo was released on bail. Routinely, his photo went over the police teletype network and soon calls came in from Connecticut where they were seeking a sexual assailant they called the “Green Man”, because he wore green work pants.
Police arrested him at home and arranged for the victims to identify him. DeSalvo was mortified that his wife would see him in handcuffs. For her part, however, she was not surprised. Albert, she said, was obsessed with sex. No one woman would ever be enough for him. In fact, the Green Man had assaulted four women in one day in different towns in Connecticut. Trying to be as supportive as she could in the face of such devastating circumstances, Irmgard told Albert to be completely truthful and not to hold anything back.
This he duly did. He admitted breaking into four hundred apartment and two rapes. He had assaulted over 300 women in four states. But still there was a problem. DeSalvo was known as a braggart and a blowhard. Therefore, could it really be that he had committed so many crimes without being detected. DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for observation. Although the police did not believe that DeSalvo could be the Strangler, they wanted the psychiatrists there to examine him.
Shortly after DeSalvo arrived at Bridgewater, a uniquely dangerous criminal named George Nassar also became an inmate. He had been charged with a vicious execution-style murder of a gas station attendant. Nassar was no ordinary thug. His IQ approached genius level and his ability to manipulate people was highly developed. While in prison for an earlier murder, he had been studying Russian and other subjects. He was put in the same ward with DeSalvo and soon became his confidant.
In early March of 1965, DeSalvo’s wife Irmgard got a call at her sister’s house in Denver from a F. Lee Bailey, who said he was Albert’s attorney. He told her to assume a different name, leave the area with her children and go into hiding at once to avoid the deluge of publicity that was going to descend upon her if she didn’t do what he said. “Something big is going to blow up about Albert – it will be on the front pages of every newspaper in 24 hours. I’m flying out to see you tomorrow so I can help you myself.”
The following day, F. Lee Bailey met with Irmgard and told her that Albert had confessed to being the strangler. She didn’t believe it. Indeed, she asked why Albert would confess to such an atrocious lie. It must be, she said, another of his attempts to seem important. There was no way he was capable of such brutality. And yet, if he was not “The Strangler”, why on earth would he confess?
The answer, or rather one possible answer, is that Albert was thinking about money. He knew that given his sheer number of crimes he would be going to prison for a long time, perhaps for the rest of his natural life. Therefore, the idea of having to somehow look after Irmgard and his children was at the forefront of his mind. The idea of selling a lucrative story and possibly collecting reward money began to seem like an attractive possibility.
It is known that in the Bridgewater psychiatric assessment unit George Nassar and Albert DeSalvo discussed the reward money for information leading to the conviction of the Strangler. The police appeal for information had mentioned a reward of $10,000 and Nassar and DeSalvo mistakenly assumed that this meant $10,000 would be paid for each victim of the Strangler, meaning a total of $110,000 for the eleven official victims. If Nassar turned him in and DeSalvo confessed, they could work out a deal to split the money.
DeSalvo believed there was a fair to even chance that he could convince the psychiatrists that he was insane and would therefore spend the rest of his life in an institution. Given that, assuming his plans all worked out of course, he wouldn’t have to worry about money, this appeared to be an attractive proposition considering the alternatives. F. Lee Bailey, who had already distinguished himself in the Dr. Sam Sheppard case, was George Nassar’s lawyer. Bailey heard about DeSalvo from Nassar and went to visit Albert with a Dictaphone on March 6, 1965. Not only did Albert confess to the murders of the eleven “official” victims, but he admitted to killing two other women – Mary Brown in Lawrence and another elderly woman whom he said died of a heart attack before he could strangle her. Speaking about DeSalvo, F. Lee Bailey said “I felt very comfortable being around him. That was one of the pieces that fell into place in the puzzle of the Boston Strangler. It helped explain why he had been able to evade detection despite more than two and a half years of investigation. DeSalvo was Dr. Jekyll; the police had been looking for Mr. Hyde. One of the things that struck me about DeSalvo at our first meeting was his courteous, even gentle manner. I stared at him, seriously considering the possibility that he might be the Strangler, and I felt something that verged on awe. As for DeSalvo, his gaze dropped from time to time in what appeared to be embarrassment.”
F. Lee Bailey asked DeSalvo forthrightly, what was it that he wanted from him? DeSalvo was equally forthright. “I know I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life locked up somewhere. I just hope it’s a hospital, and not a hole like this [Bridgewater]. But if I could tell my story to somebody who could write it, maybe I could make some money for my family.”
Bailey thought that there must be some way to allow DeSalvo to confess without setting him up for the death penalty. However, he first needed to be sure that DeSalvo’s confession was accurate and so he called in Lieutenant Donovan and asked him to interview DeSalvo to see if his story checked out.
It did. Murder by murder DeSalvo gave police details of the crimes that only someone who had been there would have known. It was a blow by blow account of his actions for the two years between 1962 and 1964. And as if that were not enough, there had been no further attacks since DeSalvo had been in custody. The police, just like F. Lee Bailey, believed every word.
Despite this, however, doubts remained – not just in the minds of those who knew DeSalvo, but also of those who cared to look at the case with an open mind. There was not a shred of physical evidence to link DeSalvo with any of the victims. Not a single witness could place him at the scene of, or indeed anywhere near, that of the murders. Those witnesses who had seen suspicious activity around the victims’ apartments were shown photographs of DeSalvo. All of them, to a man, failed to recognise him.
In addition, there was one startling piece of evidence which, despite DeSalvo’s apparent intimate knowledge of the crimes, he did not know. In at least two of the victims’ homes, extinguished cigarettes of the Salem brand had been found. Given that the victims did not smoke, they could only have belonged to the killer. Albert DeSalvo was asked if he smoked. He did not.
But something even more startling was about to occur. Two eyewitnesses, who had given police a description of a man whom they had seen entering one of the victim’s apartments and had spoken to, were taken to the Bridgewater facility to identify DeSalvo. What they did not know was that George Nassar would also be there. Both witnesses were adamant. They did not recognise DeSalvo…but George Nassar on the other hand. He was most definitely the man they had seen and spoken to.
On January 18, 1967, Albert DeSalvo was jailed for life after being found guilty of assault and armed robbery. The fact that no corroborative evidence to support his confession could be provided in court, meant that he was never formally charged with being “The Boston Strangler”. Because the jury believed that he was legally sane, DeSalvo would serve his sentence in prison, rather than his preferred psychiatric hospital.
Albert DeSalvo was serving his life sentence in Walpole State Prison, a maximum security facility now known as MCI-Cedar Junction. In 1973, he called two people – a man called Robey who had worked on The Strangler case – and a reporter. He asked them to meet with him at the prison the next day. He said he could not carry on any longer and he was going to tell them who “The Boston Strangler” really was.
That night, Albert DeSalvo was stabbed to death.
Robey said “He had asked to be placed in the infirmary under special lockup about a week before. Something was going on within the prison, and I think he felt he had to talk quickly. There were people in the prison, including guards, that were not happy with him…Somebody had to leave an awful lot of doors open, which meant, because there were several guards one would have to go by, there had to be a fair number of people paid or asked to turn their backs or something. But somebody put a knife into Albert DeSalvo’s heart sometime between evening check and the morning.”
In December 2001, Albert DeSalvo’s body was exhumed and DNA samples taken. These were then checked against tiny samples of DNA taken from one of the murder victims. They did not match.
Albert DeSalvo was a burglar, a rapist and a braggart, and would today have received treatment for what would be recognised as a sex addiction. However, in spite of all his machinations, all the evidence points to one startling fact. He was not, and is not, a killer.
A few years before his death, Albert DeSalvo wrote this poem. Perhaps he had realised the true ramifications of holding up his hands to a crime he did not commit and was sick of prison life.
Here is the story of the Strangler, yet untold,
The man who claims he murdered thirteen women,
young and old.
The elusive Strangler, there he goes,
Where his wanderlust sends him, no one knows
He struck within the light of day,
Leaving not one clue astray.
Young and old, their lips are sealed,
Their secret of death never revealed.
Even though he is sick in mind,
He’s much too clever for the police to find.
To reveal his secret will bring him fame,
But burden his family with unwanted shame.
Today he sits in a prison cell,
Deep inside only a secret he can tell.
People everywhere are still in doubt,
Is the Strangler in prison or roaming about?