The truth about the Boston Strangler is even more disturbing than fiction

During 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 stumbled upon it. The bodies were left in suggestive positions. Nylon stockings or other items of their personal clothing had been tied around their necks. Some had bottles, brooms or other foreign objects sticking out of their bodies. Leaning against the foot of the last victim, strangled 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 on the state task force overseeing America’s largest manhunt to date. His bestseller on this hunt, The Boston Stranglerwas adapted into a 1968 film starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, which spurred on a true cottage industry of crime with great staying power.

On March 17, Hulu premiered the latest addition to the work with boston stranglerstarring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as two trailblazing journalists who break history and pound the pavement until the truth comes out and justice is served.

Gerold interviewed all the major investigative figures over three years covering the case, including journalist Loretta McLaughlin, the character of Keira Knightley. And his front-row seat to the story tells a story that differs significantly from the one on screen this week.

The Hulu movie, written and directed by Matt Ruskin (Crown heights), portrays McLaughlin as a lone seeker of truth opposed to a wall of obstacles, mostly men who are more interested in power and profit than in learning the truth or obtaining justice. McLaughlin and his colleague Jean Cole (played by Coon) must pressure the investigators to do their job. Through their dogged reporting, they identify a prime suspect, a handyman named Albert DeSalvo, whom the police, in their incompetence, had thought was behind bars during the shooting and could not have been the perpetrator. It is thanks to the tenacity of women that the state finally resumes the hunt for the man, or men, responsible for Boston’s women’s seat.

In the second half of the film, having almost single-handedly brought the investigation to life, McLaughlin begins to doubt that there was only one killer. A witness does not identify DeSalvo, but his cellmate George Nassar, as being at the crime scene, and a conspiracy theory is born: Studying news articles with details of the crimes, inmates agree to pin the chokeholds on DeSalvo so the men can split the reward money to solve the crimes. DeSalvo makes a false confession, coached on the details of the murder by an investigator eager to close the case. DeSalvo’s attorney, the notorious F. Lee Bailey of OJ Simpson fame, keeps the confession out of court while securing a book deal that would earn DeSalvo a fortune (and huge attorney fees). And police and state officials, shielded from the scrutiny of male editors, declare victory to a city desperate to move forward, basking in the glory of saving the women of Boston. of a reign of terror.

“You’ve all created a myth,” Nassar told McLaughlin, who eventually got his hands on tapes in the film that 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 multiple “Boston Stranglers”.

The film’s message is clear: as McLaughlin says, “No one bothered to find out the truth, and people got away with murder.” Men, in particular, sought political, personal, and financial gain before caring about women’s opinions or safety.

The problem is that the real McLaughlin never believed the conspiracy tale depicted by the film, particularly the idea that there were multiple killers. (The film says it was “inspired by” real events, although an earlier script said it was “based on a true story” and the press still calls it that.) In 1965, in the middle of the hunt, she told my grandfather that it defied logic that there were several 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 am convinced, was Albert DeSalvo, without a doubt”.

The film’s timeline is compressed, a reasonable capitulation to the demands of cinema but also making it easier to fictionalize key storylines. In reality, McLaughlin had left the newspaper by the time DeSalvo became a suspect. In fact, DeSalvo wasn’t publicly named the strangler until 1966, when my grandfather printed the link in his book. (He was the only one to get a release from DeSalvo allowing him to do so, the so-called book deal that F. Lee Bailey made for DeSalvo.) That was nearly three years after the chokeholds ended. It was not McLaughlin, but apparently a detective, who realized that DeSalvo had been released from prison during the murders and therefore a viable suspect. In other words, she didn’t solve the case.

McLaughlin’s real-life story is already remarkable. She was a fearless and deeply empathetic journalist who broke down barriers in what was often an all-male newsroom that labeled any woman crossing the threshold a “girl.” She convinced her male editors to let her investigate a series of murders that many initially failed to notice or dismissed as a “people” story. And she played a key role in moving this investigation forward. (She died in 2018.)

So why does the movie have to turn her into a conspiracy theorist and credit her with exploits that weren’t hers and didn’t need to be for her to be a great hero?

The film is a fun watch, especially the second half, when routine procedural becomes, well, a conspiracy thriller. And to be fair, the reality of this case is that the giant cover-up multiple killer theory has been with us since the start of the chokeholds, and not without reason. DeSalvo was never tried for the murders, largely because Bailey shielded his confession from being admitted. He was stabbed in prison in 1973, shortly after hinting in a letter that his confession might have been false, which naturally fueled more conspiracies that DeSalvo was not the killer and was part of the cover-up .

Yet, while DeSalvo was never convicted of the murders, the evidence is overwhelming that he was the strangler. His confession, which my grandfather was the only reporter to hear at the time it was made, referenced many criminal details that no one else could have known. (Many have focused on the details he got wrong, but it’s believed he raped hundreds of women in their homes, and what amazed investigators wasn’t how much he didn’t remember but how much he did.) Several witnesses placed him at the scene of the murders. And in a 2013 development that should have dispelled doubts, new DNA evidence made possible by advances in testing technology has finally confirmed the link between DeSalvo and the latest victim, whose family had been the most active in wondering whether DeSalvo was responsible. The best evidence we have points to DeSalvo.

So why does the conspiracy theory endure, the evidence and logic curse?

The standard sociological interpretation of the appeal of conspiracy thinking is that it gives people clear, easy answers and a sense of control and moral righteousness in a world that is actually layered, complex, and indeterminate. There is merit in this analysis. The movie version of McLaughlin is a composite figure, a sponge for a male conspiratorial fantasy, if that one has a #MeToo bent. The film gives her points of view that she did not have, in the service of a scenario that fuels a need to believe in good women (who take the trouble to discover the truth) and bad men (who do not only care about power and profit). He then uses it as a vehicle to craft an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory, with a dark cover-up at its core.

Yet the real truth is, as Nassar says in the film, more disturbing: there are plenty of DeSalvos out there, as seen in the rise in mass shootings, the mental health crisis, and the senseless of the entry of violence into more and more areas of our lives. The films invite us to indulge in beautiful stories, delusions of security, heroism and redemption. But when the screen goes dark, we have to face the reality: we live in a violent and disorienting time, without easy answers or refuges, and with the constant imperative to discover the truth, to entertain us, to comfort or disturb us.

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