The 13 victims of the Boston Strangler

Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, 13 single women in the Boston area were victims of a deranged serial killer, or serial killers, who seemed to take pleasure in strangling his victims. While the police did not see all of these murders as the work of a single individual, the public believed all of the murders were related and that a monster was running rampant through their city. All of the victims were murdered in their apartments, had been sexually molested, and were strangled with articles of clothing. With no signs of forced entry, the women apparently knew their assailant or, at least, believing them to be an apartment maintenance man, delivery man, or some other service man, had voluntarily let him in their homes. The victims were respectable women who for the most part led quiet, modest lives. Despite enormous media publicity that would presumably have discouraged women from admitting strangers into their homes after the first few murders, the Boston Strangler continued to find new victims and the attacks continued unabated.

The first wave of attacks

55-year-old Anna e. Siesers - the first Boston Strangler victimOn the evening of June 14, 1962, 55-year-old Anna E. Siesers had just finished eating dinner and was about to take a quick bath before her son, Juris, picked her up for a memorial service downtown. An hour later, Juris showed up at 77 Gainsborough Street and knocked on his mother’s door.  After waiting some time for a response, a worried Juris kicked in his mother’s door. Inside he found Anna lying lifeless on the floor of the bathroom with the cord taken from her bathrobe twisted tightly around her neck. The house appeared as if it had been ransacked although police noted that an expensive gold watch and other pieces of jewelry had not been taken. Later it was determined that Anna had been sexually assaulted with “some unknown object”.

Two weeks later, on June 30, 1962, 68-year-old Nina Nichols was found murdered in her apartment at 1940 Commonwealth Avenue in the Brighton area of Boston. Her partially nude body was found with two nylon stockings wrapped around her neck.  The ends of the nylons had been tied in an demeaning decorative bow. As with the Siesers case, the apartment was in tatters, giving the appearance of a robbery, but expensive silverware was left untouched. Police noted that the murderer had gone through Nichols’ personal address book and mail.

That very same day, some 15 miles north of Boston in the suburb of Lynn, Helen Blake met a similar fate sometime between 8 and 10 A.M. The 65-year-old divorcee had been strangled with one of her nylon stockings. Her brassiere had been looped around her neck over the stockings and tied in a decorative bow. As with the other victims, police noted that she had been sexually assaulted but there was no trace of spermatozoa on the body.

At this point, police suspected a madman was on the loose. A warning went out to all women in the city – lock your doors and be wary of strangers.

On August 19, 75-year-old Ida Irga, a very shy and retiring widow fell victim to the Strangler. She was found two days later in her apartment at 7 Grove Avenue in the Boston’s West End. As in the other deaths, there was no sign of forced entry. Her body was found directly facing the front door, purposely posed in an horrific degrading position. The police described what they say when then entered the apartment.

“Upon entering the apartment the officers observed the body of Ida Irga lying on her back on the living room floor wearing a light brown nightdress which was torn, completely exposing her body. There was a white pillowcase knotted tightly around her neck. Her legs were spread approximately four to five feet from heel to heel and her feet were propped up on individual chairs and a standard bed pillow, less the cover, was placed under her buttocks.”

Within twenty-four hours of Ida Irga’s murder, a 67-year-old nurse named Jane Sullivan was killed in her apartment at 435 Columbia Road in Dorchester, across town from where Ida Irga lived.  Jane had been dead for approximately ten days before her body was found.  Police deduced that she had been strangled with her own nylons and her body placed postmortem in her bathtub. Police noted that there were bloodstains on the handle of a broom.

Then for three months, all was quiet.

The reprieve

For the next three months, police poured over clues and interviewed witnesses and family members of the victims. Despite a flurry of diligent police work, after three months they were still no closer to naming a suspect.

The second wave of attacks

Crowds gather as the police investigate the Boston Strangler caseThe lull in Boston Strangler murders ended on December 5, 1962 when Sophie Clark, a popular and attractive 21-year-old African-American student at the Carnegie Institute of Medical Technology, was found in her apartment at 315 Huntington Avenue by her two roommates. Her apartment was only a couple of blocks away from Anna Siesler’s home (the first Boston Strangler victim). Sophie was found in her living room with three of her own nylon stockings knotted around her neck. Her half-slip had also been tied around her neck. There was again evidence of sexual assault but this time police found semen on a rug near her body.

There was no sign of forcible entry, and friends knew that Sophie was very security conscious and had even insisted on having a second lock placed on the apartment door. Sophie was so cautious that she even questioned friends that came to the door before she let them in.  Still, her killer had somehow convinced her to open the doorway to her home.  Immediately before her death, Sophie had been writing a letter to her boyfriend when she was interrupted, probably by the Strangler.

When police questioned the neighbors, Mrs. Marcella Lulka, who lived in the same building, mentioned that around 2:20 PM a man had knocked on her door and said that the super had sent him to see her about painting her apartment. He then told her that he’d have to fix her bathroom ceiling and complimented her on her figure. “Have you ever thought of modeling?” he asked her. Angered by the comment, Marcella told the man, “my husband is sleeping in the next room”. He then said he had the wrong apartment and left hurriedly. She described him as between 25 and 30 years old, of average height and with honey-colored hair, wearing a dark jacket and dark green trousers. Police estimated Sophie’s time of death to be 2:30 PM, only 10 minutes after the stranger knocked on Lulka’s door.

Three weeks later 23-year-old Patricia Bissette, a secretary for a Boston engineering firm, was discovered on Monday, December 31, 1962, when her boss became worried about her after she failed to show up for work. He went to her apartment at 515 Park Drive in the Back Bay area (the same area that Siesers and Clark lived in) and with the help of the custodian, climbed through a window into the apartment.

The two men found Patricia laying in her bed with the covers drawn up around her chin. Underneath the covers, she lie there with several stockings knotted and interwoven with a blouse tied tightly around her neck. The killer had ransacked her apartment leaving cabinets and drawers opened and items scattered throughout the apartment.

Two detectives working the Boston Strangler caseOn March of 1963, 25 miles north of Boston, sixty-eight-year-old Mary Brown was found beaten to death in her apartment. She had also been strangled and raped.

Then on Wednesday, May 8, 1963, Beverly Samans, a 23-year-old graduate student, alarmed her friends when she missed choir practice at the Second Unitarian Church in Back Bay. A close friend went to her apartment and opened it with the key she had given to him. There he found Samans laying on a sofa bed, her legs spread apart. Her hands had been tied behind her with one of her scarves. A nylon stocking and two handkerchiefs were tied and knotted around her neck. A cloth had been stuffed into her mouth and a second cloth tied it.

Beverly Saman’s case proved to be unique. Although it initially appeared as if she had been strangled, she had in fact, been killed by four stab wounds to her throat. The coroner reported that she had sustained 22 stab wounds in all — 18 of which were in a bulls eye-shaped design on her left breast. The ligature around her neck was “decorative” and not tied tightly enough to strangle her. A bloody knife was found in her kitchen sink. She had not been sexually assaulted.

During the summer of 1963, it again remained quiet in Boston. June, July, and August passed without another killing. Police hoped, prayed even, that the murders were over. Alas, on September 8, 1963, in Salem, Evelyn Corbin, a pretty 58-year-old divorcee, was found murdered. She had been strangled with two of her nylon stockings. Evelyn’s body laid across the bed face up and nude. Her underpants had been stuffed into her mouth as a gag. Her locked apartment had been searched by the killer, a tray of jewelry had been put on the floor and her purse had been emptied onto the sofa, but police could find no evidence of anything being stolen.

On November 25, 1963, just days after the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, the body of Joann Graff was found in her ransacked Lawrence apartment. Two nylon stockings had been tied in an elaborate bow around her neck. There were teeth marks on her breast. This time there were witnesses.

At 3:25 P.M., a student that lived above Graff’s apartment heard footsteps in the hall. Ear to the door, he listened and heard a knock on the door across from his apartment. The apartment occupant answered the door and a man described as being about 27-years-old dressed in dark green slacks and a dark shirt and jacket, asked, “Does Joan Graff live here?” The student noted that the man mispronounced Joann Graff’s name. The occupant explained to the man that Joann lived in the apartment below her.  A few minutes later, the student heard the man downstairs, apparently at the correct door now.  He later called Graff to check up on her.  She never answered the phone.

A little over a month later on January 4, 1964, two young women came home after work to their apartment at 44A Charles Street. They were stunned to find their new roommate, 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, murdered in the most grotesque and shocking manner. Like the other victims, she had been strangled with a stocking.  Over the stocking a pink silk scarf had been tied with a huge bow under her chin.  Over the bow, they found another pink and white flowered scarf. A bright “Happy New Year’s” card had been placed against her feet. Forensics determined that she had been sodomized with a broomstick.

Two weeks later, Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke took over the case and Governor Peabody offered a $10,000 reward to any person furnishing information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person who had committed the murders. A special task force, the Strangler Bureau, was formed.

The Measuring Man

Albert DeSalvo mug shotA couple of years before the Boston Strangler murders began, a series of strange sex offenses took place in the Cambridge area. A man in his late 20s would knock at the door of an apartment and if a young woman answered, he would introduce himself: “My name is Johnson and I work for a modeling agency. Your name was given to us by someone who thought you would make a good model.” He would hasten to assure her that the modeling would not be in the nude or anything like that, just evening gowns and swimsuits. The pay was $40 an hour. He had been sent to get her measurements and other information if she was interested. Apparently a number of women were interested and flattered and allowed him to take out his tape measure and measure them.

He seemed like a nice enough person with a charming, boyish smile. When he was finished, he told them that Mrs. Lewis from the agency would be contacting them if the measurements were suitable. Of course, there was never any call from Mrs. Lewis because neither she nor the modeling agency existed. Suspicious, some of the women contacted the police.

On March 17, 1961, Cambridge police caught a man trying to break into a house. Not only did he confess to breaking and entering, but he confessed to being the “Measuring Man.”  His name was Albert DeSalvo, a 29-year-old man with numerous arrests for breaking into apartments. He lived in Malden with his German wife and two small children. He worked during the day as a press operator in a rubber factory.

With a confession in hand, the case was easy to close.  DeSalvo received an 18-month sentence. With good behavior, DeSalvo was released in April of 1962, not even a year into his sentence.  Two months later, the first victim of the Strangler, Anna Slesers, was found.

The Green man

On October 27, 1964 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, “What is the quickest way out of your apartment?”  “You be quiet for ten minutes”, he replied.  Finally he apologized and fled.  She got a very good look at his face and worked with a sketch artist to draw up his likeness. The police detectives noted that the sketch reminded them of the Measuring Man.

Their new criminal, dubbed Green Man, had already assaulted multiple victims in the area during a series of home invasions known as the Green man attacks.  The perpetrator, dressed in green work-clothes, would break into apartments belonging to women, tie them to their beds in a spread-eagle position at knifepoint, sexually assault them, and leave.

A few weeks later, three years after he had been released from prison for the Measuring Man crimes, DeSalvo was once again arrested. His wife was not surprised and boldly told police that Albert had been obsessed with sex.  This did not surprise the police.  In fact, the Green Man had assaulted four women in one day in different towns in Connecticut.

Upon arrest, DeSalvo admitted to breaking into four hundred apartments and claimed that he had assaulted some 300 women in a four-state area.  Given DeSalvo’s tendency to exaggerate, police were not sure if the number of women assaulted was really that high. Still, DeSalvo was held in jail pending an more thorough investigation into his claims.

The confession – innocent or guilty?

Police arrest Albert DeSalvoIn early March of 1965, DeSalvo’s wife Irmgard got a call at her sister’s house in Denver from a man who identified himself as F. Lee Bailey. The man 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. “Something big is going to blow up about Albert – it will be on the front pages of every newspaper in the country within 24 hours. ”

The next day the man called back and told her that Albert had confessed to being the Boston Strangler. She hung up on the man in disbelief.

Police at once began to suspect that DeSalvo’s had confessed to the Boston Strangler murders with ulterior motives in mind. It was known that Albert was starting to think about money: money specifically to support his family while he was in jail. The idea of selling a story and collecting reward money began to take shape in his mind.  DeSalvo discussed his plan with his jail cell roommate.

F. Lee Bailey, who had already distinguished himself in the infamous Dr. Sam Sheppard case, was the attorney for DeSavlo’s jailhouse roommate, George Nassar. Nassar had told Baily about DeSalvo’s plan to confess to the murders in order to obtain a lucrative book deal.  Bailey immediately took on DeSalvo’s case.  Bailey met with DeSalvo in jail. Not only did Albert confess to the murders of the eleven “official” Boston Strangler victims, but he admitted to killing two other women, Mary Brown in Lawrence and another elderly woman (Mary Mullen) who died of a heart attack before he could strangle her.

When Bailey questioned him what DeSalvo wanted of him, DeSalvo was quite 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 says of that interview:

“I became certain that the man sitting in that dimly lit room with me was the Boston Strangler… Anyone experienced in interrogation learns to recognize the difference between a man speaking from life and a man telling a story that he either has made up or has gotten from another person. DeSalvo gave me every indication that he was speaking from life. He wasn’t trying to recall words; he was recalling scenes he had actually experienced. He could bring back the most inconsequential details… the color of a rug, the content of a photograph, the condition of a piece of furniture… Then, as if he were watching a videotape replay, he would describe what had happened, usually as unemotionally as if he were describing a trip to the supermarket.”

DeSalvo described his attack on 75-year-old Ida Irga in August of 1962:

“I said I wanted to do some work in the apartment and she didn’t trust me because of the things that were going on and she had a suspicion of letting, allowing anybody into the apartment without knowing definitely who they were. And I talked to her very briefly and told her not to worry, I’d just as soon come back tomorrow rather than – in other words, if you don’t trust me, I’ll come back tomorrow, then. And I started to walk downstairs and she said, ‘Well, come on in.’ and we went into the bedroom where I was supposed to look at a leak there at the window and when she turned, and I put my arms around her back…”

F. Lee Bailey during the Boston Strangler trialsBailey asks DeSalvo to describe the home where the Ida Irga murder was committed.

“I think it went through a… a parlor as you walked in, and a dining room and a bedroom. Oh, before the bedroom was a kitchen, and the bedroom was way back. The bed was white. It wasn’t made, either… She was in the midst, probably, of making the bed up. And there was an old dresser there and I opened the drawers up and there was nothing in them, nothing at all. They were empty. And, uh, when I did get her by the neck and strangler her…”

Baily asked DeSalvo if he had grabbed her from behind.

“Yes. Manually. I noted blood coming out of her ear – very dark… the right ear. I remember that, and then I think there was the dining room set in there, a very dark one, and there was brown chairs around it, and I recall putting her legs up on her two chairs in a wide position – one leg in each chair…”

Bailey asked him why he would choose such an old woman to attack.

“Attractiveness had nothing to do with it. She was a woman. That was enough.”

DeSalvo then described the attack on Sophie Clark, the 22-year-old student who was killed in December of 1962:

“She was wearing a very light, flimsy housecoat, and she was very tall, well built, about 36-22-37. Very beautiful… Her apartment had a yellowish door, a faded yellow door …And she didn’t want to let me in, period. Because her roommates weren’t in there at the time… and I told her I would set her up in modeling and photography work, and I would give her anywhere from 20 dollars to 35 dollars an hour for this type of modeling. …there was a place where there would be …what do you call a flat bed, where you put a — something over it, but you take it off, you can use it to sit on, like a couch? It had fancy little pillows on it, colorful ones, purple ones. It looked like a purple or black cover.”

DeSalvo recalled the events of the Boston Strangler killings, murder by murder. He knew there was a notebook under the bed of victim number eight, Beverly Samans.  He knew that Christmas bells were attached to Patricia Bissette’s door. He drew accurate floor plans of the victims’ apartments.

He described an abortive attack on a Danish girl in her Boston apartment. He had talked his way into the place, and had his arm around her neck when he suddenly looked in a large wall mirror. Seeing himself about to kill, he was horrified. He relaxed the pressure and started crying. He was sorry, he said, he begged her not to call the police. The young woman never reported the incident. With nothing to go on other than DeSalvo’s memory, Bailey found her. Not surprisingly, she remembered the incident and confirmed DeSalvo’s account of the event.

Still, others believed DeSalvo was innocent. One investigator explained:

“Three fresh Salem cigarette butts were found in an ashtray near Mary Sullivan’s bed. Neither Mary nor her roommates… smoked this brand. A Salem cigarette butt was found floating in the toilet of Apartment 4-C at 315 Huntington Avenue in Boston the day Sophie Clark died there… Albert DeSalvo did not smoke.”

In addition, during the investigation, survivors and witnesses were taken to the prison visiting room and allowed to view DeSalvo in person (without him knowing it) in order to identify him. Surprisingly, they made identifications – but of other prisoners in the room, none of which had anything to do with the case!

George Nassar insists he had nothing to do with the Boston Strangler murdersTo further complicate matters, it was learned that DeSalvo had an almost photographic memory. Police knew that detailed sketches of the murder sites and descriptions of the events had been published in local newspapers.  They surmised that the published details had been memorized by DeSalvo allowing him to give eerily accurate descriptions of the layouts of the victims’ apartments. In addition, George Nassar, Desalvo’s prison roommate, was suspected by some to be involved with the Boston Strangler murders.  Police wondered if Nassar could have provided details about the murders to DeSalvo during their incarcerations.

Profilers also recognized that though the murders attributed to the Strangler had similarities, there were indeed some odd differences between them:

  • Some victims were posed, some were not.
  • Some murders were brutal and aggressive while some were more clinical and efficient
  • Some victims were physically raped while some were sexually assaulted with blunt objects from the house. Evelyn Corbin was forced to perform oral sex on her killer.
  • A few victims were stabbed; Beverly Samans was killed solely by 25+ stab wounds, mostly around her right breast. The rest were not stabbed.
  • Some victims were strangled with multiple ligatures while some were strangled using only one. One victim, Ida Irga, was killed by manual strangulation.

The Green Man trial and conviction

Finally on January 10, 1967, Albert DeSalvo was tried on the Green Man charges. Bailey explained his basic strategy:

“The basic strategy by which I hoped to convince a jury to find Albert not guilty by reason of insanity was simple: I would attempt to use the 13 murders he had committed as the Boston Strangler to show the extent of his insanity. To do this, I would try to get both his confession and its corroboration by police into evidence… Certainly the problem was unusual: I wanted the right to defend a man for robbery and assault by proving that he had committed 13 murders.”

Albert DeSalvo's jail cell in the Walpole State PrisonThe jury thought about it for four hours, found DeSalvo guilty on all counts and sentenced him to life in prison.

The death of Albert DeSalvo

One night in November 1973, as Albert DeSalvo was serving out his life sentence at Walpole State Prison, Dr. Ames Robey received an urgent phone call from DeSalvo. Dr. Robey could tell that DeSalvo was very frightened and promised to meet with him in the morning. The meeting never took place.  DeSalvo was murdered that night.

Robey explained what was discussed during the phone call that was made the night before DeSalvo was murdered.

“He was going to tell us who the Boston Strangler really was, and what the whole thing was about. 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.”

The aftermath

DeSalvo’s murder in prison has never been solved.  He was buried at the Puritan Lawn Memorial Park in Peabody, Massachusetts.

Although Albert De Salvo was never charged with the strangulation murders of the women due to a lack of evidence, many thought that he was the Boston Strangler. Two notable people very close to the case believed he didn’t do it. One was Albert’s brother Richard DeSalvo; the other was Casey Sherman, the nephew of the strangler’s last known victim, Mary Sullivan. Both men and their families are convinced that Albert DeSalvo did not kill Mary Sullivan.

In October 2000, the two families united to have Mary Sullivan’s remains exhumed for DNA testing (the technology was not available in the 1960’s). Tests were conducted on 68 samples of hair, semen and tissue taken from Sullivan’s exhumed body. A week later, on Friday October 26, 2001, a report by Associated Press described how Albert DeSalvo’s body had been exhumed from a gravesite in Massachusetts and taken to a forensic laboratory in York College Pennsylvania for examination. The following Saturday an autopsy was conducted on the remains in the hope of attempting to prove De Salvo’s innocence of the murders and possibly, to identify his killer.

On Thursday, December 13, 2001, Court TV reported that DNA evidence taken from Mary Sullivan’s remains did not provide a match to Albert DeSalvo. During a news conference, James Starrs told reporters: “We have found evidence and the evidence does not and cannot be associated with Albert DeSalvo.” It seemed as if DeSalvo’s confession was false.

DNA Breakthrough (updated)

A major development in the infamous Boston Strangler case occurred on July 11, 2013 when police announced that DNA evidence had put them in a position to “formally charge Albert DeSalvo with the murder of Mary Sullivan”, the 1964 murder that is generally believed to be the last Boston Strangler victim. DNA in that case had previously been tested ten years ago but test procedures were new and limited. Now, advancements in technology have led to the new developments. The Boston police made the stunning announcement:

“Now, some 50 years later, the miracle of science and DNA evidence has put law enforcement officers in a position to formally charge the Boston Strangler with the murder of Mary Sullivan.”

Boston Strangler murder victims

Anna E. Slesers, 55, sexually molested with unknown object and strangled with the cord on her bathrobe; found on June 14, 1962 in the third-floor apartment at 77 Gainsborough St., Back Bay.

Mary Mullen, 85, died from a heart attack, but in the confession was said to have collapsed as DeSalvo grabbed her; found on June 28, 1962

Nina Nichols, 68, sexually molested and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on June 30, 1962

Helen Blake, 65, sexually molested and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on June 30, 1962 in her apartment at 73 Newhall Street, Lynn, Mass.

Ida Irga, 75, sexually molested and strangled; found on August 21, 1962 at 7 Grove Street in Boston. Tenants of 7 Grove street apartment 10 reported unusual sightings and strange activities.

Jane Sullivan, 67, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on August 30, 1962 at 435 Columbia Road, Dorchester

Sophie Clark, 20, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on December 5, 1962, Boston Back Bay

Patricia Bissette, 23, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on December 31, 1962, Boston Back Bay

Mary Brown, 69, stabbed, strangled and beaten, found on March 9, 1963 in Lawrence, Mass.

Beverly Samans, 23, stabbed to death on May 8, 1963 at 4 University Road in Cambridge, Mass.

Evelyn Corbin, 58, sexually assaulted and strangled with her nylon stockings; found on September 6, 1963 in Salem, Mass.

Joann Graff, 23, sexually assaulted and strangled on November 23, 1963 in Lawrence, Mass.

Mary Sullivan, 19, sexually assaulted and strangled with dark stockings; found on January 4, 1964

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