The True Story Behind Hulu's Upcoming 'Boston Strangler,' the Serial Killer Who Terrorized City in the 1960s

Keira Knightley portrays journalist Loretta McLaughlin, one of two female reporters who dubbed a 1960s serial killer the 'Boston Strangler.' Hulu's true-crime movie begins streaming on March 17.

For two years in the 1960s, the Boston area was terrorized by a serial killer who preyed on single women, talking his way into their homes and then strangling them with items of their own clothing.

All of them were raped, some with foreign objects, and their nude bodies were laid out as if on display, with a bow tied with whatever was used to choke them to death. 

From 1962 to 1964, scared-witless women bought guard dogs and purchased so many dead bolts that hardware stores ran out of them. In all, 13 deaths were ascribed to a killer who came to be known as the Boston Strangler.

On Friday, the newest dramatization of those horrific events drops on Hulu with "Boston Strangler," in which Oscar-nominated actress Keira Knightley portrays Loretta McLaughlin, one of two female reporters who broke a four-part series in the Boston Record American that connected the killings and bestowed the killer with his infamous name.

The movie chronicles the hard road faced by the women, relegated in those times to lifestyle and gardening stories, to investigate the gruesome killings and get their work published. Veteran character actor Chris Cooper plays their cantankerous editor.

Those murders have long captivated authors and filmmakers. A popular 1968 film starred Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo, the man who admitted to 11 of the killings but was never convicted of them. Henry Fonda portrayed the lead detective in the case. 

Tony Curtis in the 1968 "Boston Strangler" film. - Getty

That movie was loosely based on the case facts. What really happened over those two years is a study in panic, and a complicated series of events including speculation over whether DeSalvo was indeed the Boston Strangler, and whether the killings were dispensed by the hands of a single attacker. 

A clear connection between DeSalvo and one of the victims would not come until 2013, when DNA evidence linked him to 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, who was raped and murdered in her Boston apartment in 1964. Hers was the last killing attributed to the Boston Strangler.

How the Case Unfolded

In June 1962, 56-year-old Anna Elsa Slesers was found dead in her third-floor apartment. She had been sexually assaulted with an unknown object and strangled with the belt of her bathrobe.

From June to August, five more women ranging in age from 65 to 85 were raped and killed in their homes. Several were strangled with their stockings. Because of the victims' ages, police began calling their attacker the "Mother Killer."

But by December, younger women were being attacked and killed.

Boston Strangler victims. - Getty

Because there was no sign of forced entry into any of the women's homes, detectives believed the killer posed as a repairman, delivery man, or some other kind of service worker.

Around the same time, police were investigating a series of New England rapes in which a man dressed in a green handyman uniform entered the homes of women and sexually assaulted them. DeSalvo was arrested for the "Green Man" attacks, based on a witness identification, and sent to Bridgewater State Hospital in 1964 for psychiatric observation.

There, he met convicted killer George Nassar and confessed that he was actually the Boston Strangler, divulging specific details of the murders. Nassar told his attorney, a young F. Lee Bailey, who took on DeSalvo as a client.

DeSalvo repeated his confession to police, getting some of the murder details right but offering inconsistent descriptions in others. Nevertheless, he was able to provide crime specifics that had been withheld from the public. 

In his 1971 book "The Defense Never Rests," Bailey wrote DeSalvo got one detail right that a victim was mistaken about. He described a blue chair in the woman's living room. She had said it was brown. Photographs showed DeSalvo was right.

But no physical evidence connected DeSalvo to the Boston Strangler murders. Because of that, prosecutors only charged him with the "Green Man" attacks and he was sentenced to life in prison in 1967.

Albert DeSalvo talking to reporters in 1967. - Getty

A month later, DeSalvo and two other convicts escaped from the Bridgewater State Hospital, where he was undergoing more mental tests, and all-out manhunt was launched. In a note left on his bunk, DeSalvo said his escape was designed to protest conditions at the mental hospital. 

Albert DeSalvo was wearing a Navy uniform when he was captured after escaping a state mental hospital. - Getty

He was captured the next day, dressed as a U.S. Navy petty officer. DeSalvo was transferred to the maximum-security Walpole State Prison, where he was active in the inmate union and designed jewelry and leather goods that were displayed in the correction facility's lobby.

He made necklaces he described as "chokers."

On the morning of Nov. 27, 1973, DeSalvo was found stabbed to death in his prison cell. The 40-year-old inmate's killing was never solved.

For years, law enforcement officers and attorneys associated with DeSalvo and Nassar expressed doubt that DeSalvo single-handedly carried out all of the Boston Strangler killings. Many suspected Nassar was responsible for some of the murders, something he denied. 

Those doubts lingered for decades until 2013, when DeSalvo was genetically linked to the murder and rape of the last Boston Strangler victim.

Boston police announced that year that DNA evidence from the 1964 killing of Mary Sullivan was a "near-certain match" to a nephew of DeSalvo. Officers had followed the nephew and collected a water bottle he discarded.

A court then ordered the exhumation of DeSalvo's body for direct DNA testing. The Boston Police Commissioner and state officials announced the seminal fluid found at Sullivan's murder matched DeSalvo.

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