What is the true story of the Boston Strangler?

Between June 1962 and January 1964, 13 women(Opens in a new tab) were found strangled to death with their own clothes and sexually assaulted in their Boston-area homes. The victims — Anna Elsa Šlesers, Mary Mullen, Helen Blake, Nina Nichols, Ida Irga, Jane Sullivan, Sophie Clark, Patricia Bissette, Mary Brown, Beverly Samans, Evelyn Corbin and Joann Graff — ranged in age from 19 to 85. All the murders were attributed to one man, eventually named the Boston Strangler.

Hulu’s new thriller, Boston Strangler, takes the audience into the newsroom where this emerging killing spree was first identified. Before you watch, here’s a primer on who’s who, including suspects and Boston Globe journalists who established the connection between the murders.

Some of the Strangler’s victims.
Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

Who Was The Boston Strangler?

During this two-year period, women all over Boston lived in terror(Opens in a new tab). They were afraid to leave the house—even in daylight—and they were equally afraid to be at home. There was no sign of forced entry in either case, suggesting the killer was using some ruse to gain access to the victims. Most likely, it could be anyone.

Was Albert DeSalvo the Boston Strangler?

Albert DeSalvo(Opens in a new tab) is the name most associated with the Boston Strangler cases, and although he was never convicted of any of the murders, he confessed to them.

In March 1960, when he was arrested for breaking into a house, De Salvo admitted that he was “The Counting Man”. That was the epithet of a serial predator who went door to door across Cambridge under the guise of a model scout. Once accepted into their homes, he would use a measuring tape as an excuse to abuse his victims. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison, served 11 and was released in 1962.

For his second crime, he became known as the “Green Man” because of the color he wore when he committed his sexual assaults. DeSalvo was caught when one of his victims reported her assault to the police and described him. From there, he was taken to Bridgewater State Hospital for observation. While he would go on to confess to being the Boston Strangler, there was no physical evidence linking him to any of the cases at the time. He was not recognized by the women who survived the Strangler’s attacks.

It wasn’t until July 2013(Opens in a new tab) that his DNA was confirmed to be on the body of Mary Sullivan, the last of the Strangler’s victims. DeSalvo was determined to be Sullivan’s rapist and killer by the Boston Police Department’s cold case team, as well as the attorney general’s office, although it is still not certain that he is guilty of the Strangler’s other crimes.

Eventually, DeSalvo went to prison for his “Green Man” crimes. Stabbed to death in his cell at Walpole Prison in 1973.

Who is George Nassar?

Convicted murderer George Nassar (center) sits in a car between two law enforcement officials as he waits to be transferred from Salem Prison to Walpole State Prison.

George Nassar (center)
Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

While in prison at Bridgewater, DeSalvo he confessed to a roommate(Opens in a new tab) be the Boston Strangler. That cellmate was George Nassar, a twice-convicted murderer. He had been sentenced to life in prison for the 1948 murder of Dominic Kirmil, but was paroled in 1961. Four years later, Nassar was sentenced to death (later commuted to life) for the murder of Irvin Hilton, the owner of a Texaco station in Andover, Massachusetts.

It is worth noting that Nassar was out of prison when the Boston Strangler murders began. When the survivors were asked to identify the Strangler, two pointed to Nassar as their attacker(Opens in a new tab), not DeSalvo. Speculation has arisen that DeSalvo and Nassar conspired with DeSalvo’s confession to obtain the $10,000 in reward money for the Strangler’s finger.

As of 2018, Nassar was still in prison.

Could there have been multiple killers?

During DeSalvo’s Criminal trial 1967(Opens in a new tab) for the Strangler cases, Dr. Ames Roby,(Opens in a new tab) forensic psychiatrist, served as a defense witness. He argued that DeSalvo, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, could not be the Strangler and was just someone who craved attention.

Both Susan Kelly, its author The Boston Stranglers(Opens in a new tab), and FBI profiler and criminologist Robert Ressler believed that more than one person must have committed the 13 murders. In her work, Kelly points out that errors in the details of DeSalvo’s fight with those found in newspapers of the time. This suggests that rather than actually committing the crimes, he may have merely regurgitated what was reported.

As for Ressler, he believed that the modus operandi in the alleged Strangler cases was very different. He said CBS News(Opens in a new tab) in 2001, “You’re putting together so many different patterns here that it’s behaviorally inconceivable that they could all fit into one person.”

Who Was F. Lee Bailey?

One of today's most popular defense attorneys, F. Lee Bailey, is relaxing in his home library with a book about one of his clients, who is currently in a mental institution.

F. Lee Bailey
Credit: Bettmann / Contributor

Later known as one of OJ Simpson’s defense lawyers(Opens in a new tab), F. Lee Bailey(Opens in a new tab) he defended several notorious defendants during his career, including Dr. Sam Shepard(Opens in a new tab) (which provided the inspiration for the 1993 film The fugitive), as Patty Hearst(Opens in a new tab) and DeSalvo in 1967.

Bailey was introduced to DeSalvo through another client, George Nassar.

Bailey’s tactics in the DeSalvo trial(Opens in a new tab), which involved the armed robberies and sexual assaults of the “Green Man” due to a lack of physical evidence linking him to the murders, had to convince the jury that DeSalvo was both the Boston Strangler and completely insane. All four women from those attacks testified against him.

Bailey pieced together the evidence, citing DeSalvo’s violent childhood(Opens in a new tab) and his confessions to all the murders. DeSalvo was convicted of assault and robbery and sent to Bridgewater. However, the jury did not find him insane, probably because the prosecution pointed out that a person so regularly eccentric could not be in the mood to put on gloves before committing murder.

Who were Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole?

Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole on Hulu's

A scene from “Boston Strangler”
Credit: Hulu

So far, the information we’ve presented about the Boston Strangler may be familiar to you, especially if you consider yourself any kind of true crime buff. But did you know that the story of the Boston Strangler was analyzed by two female reporters at Boston Record-American?

In the minefield of sexism that was the 1960s, Loretta McLaughlin covered the Strangler murders in 1962. Along with a colleague Jean Cole Harris(Opens in a new tab)he connected the crimes and convinced their bosses that these murders were the work of one person.

McLaughlin recalled(Opens in a new tab) that it was the fourth Strangler murder, that of 75-year-old Ida Irga, that spurred her into action and prompted her to talk to her publisher about writing a series. Despite deciding the story wasn’t worth more than one article, McLaughlin and Cole went ahead.

of Hulu Boston Strangler focuses on the reports of McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Cole (Carrie Coon) and their tireless efforts to warn the women of Boston that their safety was at risk.

How to watch: Boston Strangler it’s now on Hulu.(Opens in a new tab)

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