Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Boston Strangler

The Boston Stranglers

Americans like their larger-than-life stories and among those that seem fixed in the American consciousness is that Albert DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler. Few people realize that he was never tried for these crimes and even fewer that his so-called confessions contained significant errors. Despite direct proof via DNA that he most likely did not kill Mary Sullivan, the final victim attributed to the Strangler, criminologists continue to include him in the pantheon of notorious American serial killers. DeSalvo himself supposedly told a few people that he was not the guy. People who read Susan Kelly's book will believe him.

Book Cover: Boston Stranglers
Book Cover: Boston Stranglers

Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, 13 single women in the Boston area were victims of either a single serial killer or several killers. The police believed that at least 11 of these incidents were the work of a single perpetrator, whom the media dubbed the Phantom Fiend or Boston Strangler. In just over two months, six elderly women were killed, but then the fiend supposedly turned to younger women. (A prominent psychiatrist said he'd gotten over his mother fixation and had "matured" to women his own age.) All of the victims were sexually molested and many were strangled with articles of clothing. In some cases, the ligature was tied into a bow.

DeSalvo, a construction worker already in prison for unrelated burglaries and sex offenses, confessed to attorney F. Lee Bailey, who cut a deal that sent him to prison without ever being tried for the murders. Yet apparently some members of the Boston area police force were not convinced that the killer had been caught, and they voiced their doubts Susan Kelly, a writer.

She was at the police department in Cambridge, Massachusetts on November 8, 1981 to do research for a novel about a serial killer. A believer herself in the official story about DeSalvo, she was surprised to learn that quite a few people involved with the case thought there were serious problems with its "packaging." Politically, city officials had benefited from assuring the terrorized city that the Boston Strangler had been caught, but few who knew better accepted that statement. Yes, DeSalvo had confessed and, yes, he'd gotten many details right, but there were reasons for that which had nothing to do with him being a killer. Kelly was urged to investigate the story herself, and she found plenty of officers willing to tell her what they knew.

As a result, she wrote The Boston Stranglers, published in 1995, to assert that not only was DeSalvo a liar but also that there had been more than one good suspect for these murders and it was unlikely that the incidents were all linked to a single person.