Boston Strangler Truth is even more disturbing than fiction

Over the course of 18 months in the idealistic early 1960s, 13 women in the Boston area were strangled and sexually assaulted. The elusive killer left behind a grotesque, ritualized crime scene, as if mocking the people who would come upon it. Bodies were left in suggestive positions. Nylon stockings or other items of their personal clothing had been tied around their necks. Some had bottles, broomsticks or other foreign objects sticking out of their bodies. Propped up against the foot of the last victim who suffocated on January 4, 1964, was a cheery 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 author embedded in the state task force overseeing America’s largest manhunt to date. His bestselling book about that hunt, Boston Stranglerwas adapted into a 1968 film starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, which spurred a true-criminal cottage industry with great staying power.

On March 17, Hulu premiered the latest addition to the work Boston Stranglerstarring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as two trailblazing journalists who break the story and pound the pavement until the truth emerges and some measure of justice is served.

Gerold interviewed every major figure in the investigation over three years of covering the case, including journalist Loretta McLaughlin, the Keira Knightley character. And his front-row seat to history 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 truth pitted against a wall of obstacles, primarily men more interested in power and profit than learning the truth or achieving justice. McLaughlin and her colleague Jean Cole (played by Coon) have to push 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 ineptitude, had believed was behind bars during the killing spree and could not have been the perpetrator. It is because of the tenacity of the women that the state finally takes over the hunt for the man or men responsible for besieging the women of Boston.

In the second half of the film, after almost single-handedly bringing the investigation to life, McLaughlin begins to doubt that there was only one killer. A witness identifies not DeSalvo, but his cellmate George Nassar, as being at the crime scene, and a conspiracy theory is born: Studying press reports detailing the crimes, the inmates collaborate to put the chokeholds on DeSalvo so the men can split reward money for to solve the crimes. DeSalvo gives a false confession, coached on the details of the murder by a detective eager to close the case. DeSalvo’s lawyer, the infamous F. Lee Bailey of OJ Simpson fame, keeps the confession out of court while he secures a book deal that would pay DeSalvo a fortune (and huge attorney’s fees). And police and state officials, shielded from the scrutiny of male newspaper editors, declare victory for a city desperate to move on, basking in the glory of having saved Boston’s women from a reign of terror.

“You all created a myth,” Nassar tells McLaughlin, who finally gets hold of tapes that confirm in the film that the confessions were coached. People would think 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 delusion.” Finally, an “s” is added to a headline to indicate the new consensus that there are multiple “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 economic gain over concern for women’s views or safety.

The problem is that the real McLaughlin never believed in the conspiracy narrative that the film portrays, specifically 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 call it that.) In 1965, in the middle of the hunt, she told my grandfather that it defied logic that there would be more psychopaths running around Boston strangling women and arranging the crime scenes in similar, grotesque patterns. Reiterating her belief in a single killer in a 1992 statement, she 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 one that also facilitates the fictionalization of important plot lines. In reality, McLaughlin had left the paper when DeSalvo became a suspect. In fact, DeSalvo was not publicly named as the Strangler until 1966, when my grandfather printed the link in his book. (He was the only one who got a release from DeSalvo that allowed him to do that, the so-called book deal that F. Lee Bailey made for DeSalvo.) This was nearly three years after the strangleholds ended. It was not McLaughlin, but reportedly a detective, who realized that DeSalvo was out of prison during the murders and thus a viable suspect. In other words, she didn’t crack the case.

McLaughlin’s actual story is already remarkable. She was a fearless and deeply empathetic reporter who broke barriers in what was often an all-male newsroom that referred to any woman who crossed the threshold as 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 “nobody” story. And she played a key role in moving that investigation forward. (She died in 2018.)

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

The film is a fun watch, especially the second half, where a routine procedure becomes, well, a conspiratorial thriller. And in fairness, the reality of this case is that the theory of multiple killers being transferred by a giant coverup has been with us since the strangleholds began, and for good reason. DeSalvo was never prosecuted for the murders, in large part because Bailey protected his confession from being admitted. He was jailed in 1973, shortly after suggesting in a letter that his confession might have been false, which naturally gave rise to more conspiracies that DeSalvo was not the killer and was part of the cover-up.

Although DeSalvo was never convicted of the murders, the evidence is overwhelming that he was the strangler. His confession, which my grandfather was the only journalist to hear at the time it was given, referred to extensive crime details 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 stunned investigators was not how much he didn’t remember, but how much he did.) More witnesses placed him at the locations of the murders. And in a 2013 development that should have put doubts to rest, new DNA evidence made possible by advances in testing technology finally confirmed the link between DeSalvo and the final victim whose family had been most active in questioning , whether DeSalvo was responsible. 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. There is merit to this analysis. The film version of McLaughlin is a composite figure, a sponge for a male conspiratorial fantasy if one has a #MeToo bent. The film gives her points of view she didn’t have, in service of a story that feeds a need to believe in good women (who bother to find out the truth) and bad men (who only care about power and profit). It then uses her as a vehicle to push a debunked Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory with a shady coverup at its core.

Yet the actual truth Nassar tells in the film is more disturbing: There are a lot of DeSalvos out there, as seen in the rise in mass shootings, the mental health crisis, and the senselessness of violence entering more and more areas of our lives. The films invite us to indulge in good stories, in delusions of safety, 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 harbors, and a continuing demand to get to the truth, whether it entertains, comforts or disturbs us.

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