Boston Strangler Truth Is Even More Disturbing Than Fiction
Over the course of 18 months in the idealistic early 1960s, 13 Boston-area women were strangled and sexually assaulted. The elusive killer left behind a grotesque, ritualized crime scene, as if mocking the people who would come to it. The bodies were left in suggestive positions. Nylon stockings or other items of their personal clothing were tied around their necks. Some had bottles, brooms or other foreign objects sticking out of their bodies. Resting at the foot of the last victim, drowned on January 4, 1964, was a cheerful greeting card that read: “Happy New Year!”
The so-called Boston Strangler terrorized a city and fascinated a nation, including my grandfather, Gerold Frank, an author and journalist who traveled to Boston and became the only writer involved with the state task force that oversaw the largest manhunt. America to this day. His best-selling book on that hunt, The Boston Strangler, was adapted into a 1968 film starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, which spurred an industry of true-crime houses with great staying power.
On March 17, Hulu premiered its latest addition to Boston Strangler, starring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as two pioneering journalists who break the story and pound the pavement until the truth is revealed and a measure of justice is served.
Gerold interviewed every key figure in the investigation over three years of covering the case, including reporter Loretta McLaughlin, character Keira Knightley. And his place at the front row of the story tells a story that differed in important ways from the one that hit the screen this week.
The Hulu film, written and directed by Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), portrays McLaughlin as a lone seeker of the truth, faced with a wall of obstacles, mostly men who are more interested in power and profit than learning the truth or to obtain justice. McLaughlin and her colleague Jean Cole (played by Coon) must pressure the investigators to do their job. Through their hard-hitting reporting, they identify a prime suspect, a handyman named Albert DeSalvo, whom the police, in their incompetence, had thought was behind bars during the killing spree and could not have been the perpetrator. It is because of the women’s persistence that the state finally takes over the hunt for the man, or men, responsible for the siege of Boston’s women.
In the second half of the film, after almost single-handedly bringing the investigation to life, McLaughlin begins to suspect that there was only one killer. A witness identifies not DeSalvo, but his cellmate George Nassar, as at the crime scene, and a conspiracy theory is born: Studying press reports detailing the crimes, the inmates collaborate to fix the chokeholds on DeSalvo so that the men to be able to share reward money for solving crimes. DeSalvo makes a false confession, coached on the details of the murder by an investigator eager to close the case. DeSalvo’s lawyer, the infamous F. Lee Bailey of OJ Simpson fame, keeps the confession out of court while securing a book deal that would pay DeSalvo a fortune (and hefty attorney’s fees). And police and state officials, shielded from the control of male newspaper editors, declare victory to a city desperate to move on, basking in the glory of rescuing Boston’s women from a reign of terror.
“You’ve all created a myth,” Nassar tells McLaughlin, who finally gets his hands on the tapes that, in the film, confirm the confessions were coached. People wanted to believe it was DeSalvo, he explains, because the alternative was too disturbing — that there are a lot of DeSalvos out there, “and your safe little world is just an illusion.” At the end, an “s” is added to a title to indicate the new consensus that there are many “Boston Stranglers.”
The film’s message is clear: As McLaughlin says, “Nobody bothered to get to the truth, and people got away with murder.” Men, in particular, sought political, personal and financial gain before concern for women’s views or safety.
The problem is that the real McLaughlin never believed in the conspiracy tale that the film depicts, especially the view that there were multiple killers. (The film says it was “inspired by” real events, though an earlier script said it was “based on a true story” and press materials still called it that.) In 1965, in the middle of the hunt, she told my grandfather that it defied logic that there would be many psychopaths running around Boston strangling women and arranging crime scenes in similar, grotesque patterns. She reiterated her belief in a single killer in a 1992 op-ed and said in a 2005 interview about the 13 murders that “the killer, I’m convinced, was Albert DeSalvo, there’s no doubt about it.”
The film’s timeline is compressed, a reasonable capitulation to the demands of cinema, but one that also facilitates the fictionalization of the main lines. In reality, McLaughlin had left the paper by the time DeSalvo became a suspect. In fact, DeSalvo was not publicly named as the strangler until 1966, when my grandfather printed the connection in his book. (He was the only one who got a release from DeSalvo allowing him to do this, the so-called book deal that F. Lee Bailey made for DeSalvo.) This was nearly three years after the drownings ended. It was not McLaughlin, but reportedly a detective, who realized that DeSalvo was out of prison during the murders and thus a possible suspect. In other words, she did not open the case.
McLaughlin’s current story is already remarkable. She was a courageous and deeply empathetic reporter who broke barriers in what was often an all-male newsroom that referred to every woman who crossed the threshold as a “girl.” She convinced her male editors to let her investigate a string of murders that many initially overlooked or dismissed as a “nobody’s” story. And she played a key role in driving this investigation forward. (She died in 2018.)
So why does the movie have to turn her into a conspiracy theorist and credit her with feats that weren’t hers and shouldn’t have been in order for her to be a great heroine?
The film is a fun watch, especially the second half, when a routine procedure becomes, well, a conspiracy thriller. And rightfully so, the reality of this case is that the theory of multiple killers documented by a giant cover-up has been with us since the beginning of the drownings, and for good reason. DeSalvo was never tried for the murders, largely because Bailey protected his confession from admission. He was stabbed in prison in 1973 shortly after suggesting in a letter that his confession might have been false, which of course fueled more conspiracies that DeSalvo was not the killer and part of the cover-up.
However, while DeSalvo was never convicted of the murders, the evidence is overwhelming that he was the murderer. His account, which my grandfather was the only journalist to hear at the time it was made, referred to extensive details of the crime that no one else could have known. (Many have focused on the details he got wrong, but he is believed to have raped hundreds of women in their homes, and what surprised investigators was not how much he didn’t remember, but how much he did remember.) Some witnesses put him in the locations of the murders. And in a 2013 development that should have quelled suspicions, new DNA evidence made possible by advances in testing technology finally confirmed the link between DeSalvo and the latest victim, whose family had been most active in the question of whether DeSalvo was liable. The best evidence we have all points to DeSalvo.
So why does the conspiracy theory live on, evidence and logic be damned?
The standard sociological interpretation of the appeal of conspiracy thinking is that it gives people clean, easy answers and a sense of control and moral righteousness in a world that is actually layered, complex, and indeterminate. This analysis has merit. The film version of McLaughlin is a composite figure, a sponge for a male conspiracy fantasy, if one with a #MeToo bent. The film clothes her with views she didn’t have, in the service of a script that feeds the need to believe in good women (who bother to understand the truth) and bad men (who only care about power and profit). . He then uses it as a vehicle to spin an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory, with a cover-up at its core.
However, the actual truth is, as Nassar says in the film, more disturbing: There are too many DeSalvos out there, as seen in the rise in mass shootings, the mental health crisis, and the senseless violence creeping into more and more areas of our country. . live. Movies invite us to indulge in big stories, in illusions of security, heroism and redemption. But when the screen goes dark, we must reckon with reality: we live in a violent, disorienting time with no easy answers or safe gateways and a constant necessity to reach for the truth, whether it entertains, comforts or bothers.