Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on Jan. 13, 1967.
Albert H. DeSalvo was labeled the Boston Strangler Thursday.
Sensation followed sensation in a crowded Middlesex Superior Courtroom as DeSalvo’s lawyer and a psychiatrist said the defendant had told them of committing 13 murders in an 18-month period.
Each slaying would be preceded by a night during which DeSalvo would be tormented “with a burning up inside…
“Like little fires. Like little explosions,” the psychiatrist said.
Defense Atty. F. Lee Bailey said DeSalvo was consumed by “one of the most crushing sexual drives that psychiatric science has ever encountered.
“Thirteen acts of homicide by a completely uncontrollable vegetable walking around in a human body,” Bailey said in opening his defense.
The psychiatrist, Dr. James A. Brussel, associate commissioner of the Department of Mental Health of New York state, testified that DeSalvo described to him how he strangled women while wracked by mental torment.
The 34-year-old former Malden man was suffering from “schizophrenia of the paranoid type,” Dr. Brussel said.
He described this as a split personality which causes a person to lose touch with reality. A “major mental illness,” he said.
He said DeSalvo’s mental illness stemmed from his childhood, when he was introduced to criminal and sexual activities.
Dr. Brussel said that DeSalvo told him at one time he was about to strangle a woman. Then he saw his victim’s in a mirror and that tears came to his eyes and he immediately stopped.
DeSalvo is on trial before Judge Cornelius J. Moynihan and a jury on assault, robbery and sex offenses committed in Summer and early Fall of 1964 - not for the stranglings.
He has been confined to Bridgewater State Hospital since being arrested later that year.
Bailey, who has gained international fame for his recent victories in headline murder trials, first came into contact with DeSalvo at Bridgewater when he was a cellmate of one of Bailey’s clients.
DeSalvo said at the outset of the trial that he wanted to “let the truth be known.”
Bailey did not state directly that his client was the Boston Strangler, but he said the 13 homicides took place after DeSalvo was released from the Billerica House of correction in the Spring of 1962.
From June 14, 1962, to Jan. 4, 1964, 13 women were strangled to death in eastern Massachusetts.
Spectators in the courtroom gasped with each revelation by Bailey and Dr. Brussel of what DeSalvo had told them.
Many of the spectators at the trial were women, and many of them fidgeted nervously as the lurid testimony of DeSalvo’s overwhelming sexual obsession unfolded.
But their attention never wavered.
More than 40 persons were refused admittance when every seat in the courtroom was filled after the noon recess. Some began shoving and shouting to be let into the chamber.
The din outside the courtroom became so loud that Bailey was forced to interrupt his opening statement to the jury while court officers cleared the corridors.
Later, the thunder of a piledriver at a construction site next to the courthouse caused the same difficulty for Dr. Brussel, who sometimes had to repeat his testimony.
Bailey posed this series of questions to the psychiatrist:
Q – Did you get some history from the defendant with reference to his sexual conduct?
A – Yes, sir.
Q – And can you tell the jury whether or not, that is, with respect to frequency, normal or abnormal?
A – He has – he is capable, has been capable –
Q – Normal or abnormal?
A – Abnormal.
Q – Will you tell us whether the abnormality is slight or extreme?
A – In my personal experience and by textbooks, extremely extreme.
Dr. Brussel says he has been dealing with criminal cases for 35 years. He is a tall, spare man who delivers his answers with an air of certainty.
The psychiatrist had helped solve several baffling police cases, among them that of the “Mad Bomber” who terrorized New York city in 1965.
He testified that DeSalvo told him he killed his victims with nylon stockings.
“He tied the victims up usually with scarves or stockings, the stockings being the terminal means by which, though unconsciousness had of course, ensured, the terminal means by which life ended,” he said.
He said the victims were tied “in a frog-like position,” and that DeSalvo had relations with the dead or unconscious body.
DeSalvo sat between two court officers at the center of the courtroom. His head was bowed, and he stared at the floor.
At times during the doctor’s testimony, he would close his eyes and rub the bridge of his nose with two fingers of his right hand.
He has made the same gesture at other apparent times of stress during the trial.
The defendant is ruggedly built. During nine years in the Army he had a tour of duty in Germany and was middleweight boxing champion of the U.S. Army in Europe.
Dr. Brussel said he used that strength to throttle his victims.
SANE OR NOT?
In his opening statement, Bailey told the jurors that there is no dispute that the crimes for which DeSalvo is on trial took place and that the only issue before them was whether the defendant was sane or insane at the time.
He said that besides Dr. Brussel he planned to present Dr. Robert R. Mezer of Boston.
“You will learn from these psychiatrists that this defendant was born under difficult circumstances,” Bailey said.
“One of several children, as a child he was cruelly, blatantly mistreated, that he was exposed to the most deviate conduct, that his ideas from early childhood were warped, and that although he appears to be as normal in appearance as you and I, that there is a facet to his personality that leaves him without control.
“The evidence will show that in circumstances of control where persons of superior authority are directing and influencing the defendant that his behavior is normal and even exemplary, “Bailey said.
“When he was very young, he exhibited extreme cruelty, first to animals, and then when he went to school.
“During school hours he was a model child, a teacher’s pet, because the authority he was lacking at home was present.
“He was taught to shoplift when he was six years, “Bailey said.
The lawyer said that while DeSalvo was in the army his conduct was “exemplary,” that he was a military policeman and well thought of “because and only because he had controls, the psychological controls of a superior authority.”
“During the time he was not on duty in the military his conduct was anything but appropriate.
“He was released from the army and came back to live in this area. He immediately reverted to his past tendency to break the rules.
“There had developed by this point in Albert DeSalvo one of the most crushing sexual drives that psychiatric science has ever encountered,” Bailey said.
The lawyer said that several years ago DeSalvo “Went around in the local area and measured people.
“He would knock on the door and using a ruse, as he did, announce himself as an agent for a photographer and ask whether or not he could measure the ladies – always the ladies.
“Eventually he was caught for this and was incarcerated in the House of Correction in Billerica,” Bailey said.
He then told of DeSalvo marrying a German girl while in the Army and having two children by her. “But he developed and had very serious sexual problems within the framework of his own marriage,” Bailey said.
He said that after the defendant was released from the Billerica institution his wife rejected him.
“And Albert DeSalvo was on the loose with no controls.
“Only by this time so much had been pent up that there was not only a measuring, not only indecent assaults, such as you have heard described, but for a period of 18 months, 13 acts of homicide by a completely uncontrollable vegetable walking around in a human body,” Bailey said.
At this time, the prosecutor, Asst. District Atty. Donald L. Conn, interrupted to ask that the reference to homicide be stricken from the record.
Judge Moynihan declined to order the statement stricken but suggested that Bailey continue onto a different topic.
Bailey went on to say that after the 18-month period elapsed, DeSalvo reverted to some extent to the conduct in which he had been engaged in prior to going away to Billerica.”
He then called Dr. Brussel as his first witness.
The psychiatrist testified he had examined DeSalvo twice. Bailey asked him to give the defendant’s history as told to him by DeSalvo.
At an early age, Dr. Brussel said, DeSalvo and a friend “engaged in such activities as taking an orange crate, placing a dog on one side and a cat on the other and closing the crate for three days and then returning three days later to liberate the animals at which time, the cat would of course come out and gouge out the eyes of the dog.”
“He floundered in his search for normal sexuality, having been confused from early age,” Dr. Brussel said.
“When he eventually he married while in the Army he made excessive demands on his wife.
“When he was released from the correctional institution, the one Mr. Bailey referred to, his wife refused him and said he would now have to prove himself again.
“She used sex to hurt him,” Dr. Brussel testified.
The psychiatrist said that DeSalvo’s intelligence quotient was 96, once 97, “below average – normal.”
He said that DeSalvo had told him that while in the Army he had a clean record.
Q – Did you get any history as to his activities in his off-duty hours?
A – In his off-duty hours this man consorted with the wives of officers who were away for business or other reasons engaging in sexual activities, some of which would last an entire day and including the acceptable and the deviant types of sexual activity.
Q – What did he tell you about his measuring? Before you go on, what would he do?
A – The offer would be made for $25 for measurements to find the proper build so far as height and bust and waist and legs, etc., or $40 in the nude and a number of them, the subjects he approached, would say, ‘Well, why not go for it all, let’s go for the nude.’ And he would measure them very carefully without any sexual manipulation or advances. Although at times offers of sexual congress were made to him.
After an objection of one state, Judge Moynihan emphasized to the jury that Dr. Brussel’s testimony was not evidence of what DeSalvo had done but “solely as part of the history given by the defendant to the doctor.”
Q – Continue, Doctor.
A – He would, from time to time, start out in a truck or a car for work and be seized with a certain type of feeling.
Q – Is this what he told you?
A – Yes.
Q – How did he describe it? Can you use his words”
A – It would start the night before with a burning up inside. Like little fires. Like little explosions. And he would get up in the morning feeling hungry, yet he would not eat. He did not want to eat. He could not eat. But he had this hunger, and he would get in his car or truck and drive, sometimes not knowing where he was going.
On occasions, he would suddenly look around and find that he was in Connecticut or Rhode Island and ask himself ‘What am I doing here?’ And he would turn around and drive back. But he would not drive home, nor would he drive to work.
He would drive to a neighborhood within range of this community that he knew from previous associations of having been there. He would drive to an apartment house or a dwelling, a multiple dwelling that he knew, that he recognized, and he would go inside. He would park the car perhaps a block away or around the corner.
He would indiscriminately punch doorbell keys until he got an answer and would then go to that apartment.
POSED AS REPAIRMAN
Dr. Brussel said that DeSalvo told him he would use the tactic of posing as a repairman to gain entry to the apartment, and that the women would usually be dressed in sleeping garments or a robe.
“He would come in and they would begin to search for either the alleged repair or where there would be work, but once her back was turned to him the indescribable compulsion as he put it to me, the feeling of hatred, the feeling of his wife having turned her back on him, the feeling that he was not being shown affection which his mother had never shown him, simply swept over him.
“These little fires and little explosions would mount up to a pitch where he resorted to that expression of strength that he had shown while he was in the Army in Germany,” Dr. Brussel said.
“He would quickly use one arm around the neck, which would probably result in at least unconsciousness,” he said.
The doctor told of DeSalvo telling him of one instance when “about to perform one of these gestures – of choking of the victim – he saw her face in the mirror.
Q – What did he do?
A – He immediately stopped. Tears came to his eyes and he left.
Q – Did he tell you whether or not as to each of the cases where he did not stop that he was unable to see, or did not see the face of the victim?
A – He did not see the face of the victim. Dr. Brussel then went on to describe the sex acts DeSalvo told him he would commit on the dead or unconscious body of his victim.
Q – Now, doctor, did he do anything after the – or at the time of the sexual activity with reference to tieing any of the victims?
A – He tied the victims up usually with scarves or stockings, the stockings being the terminal means by which, through unconsciousness had of course ensued, the terminal means by which life was ended.
Q – Are you telling us your opinion or what the defendant told you?
A – What he told me. He also tied them up in his language, Mr. Bailey, in a frog-like position.
Earlier in the day, the state’s final witness had been Cambridge Police Sgt. Duncan S. McNeil, who arrested DeSalvo in November 1964, in connection with the crimes for which he is on trial.
He testified that he telephoned DeSalvo one night to ask him to come to the police station the next day and that DeSalvo asked him “Why can’t I come tonight.” McNeil told him he could.
He asked me to help him,” McNeil said.” He wanted to be hospitalized.”
Dr. Brussel testified DeSalvo told him that when McNeil called he said, “Thank God I’m stopped.”
Conn then questioned the psychiatrist and cross examination.
The aggressive prosecutor pulled no punches in an effort to establish that Dr. Brussel’s diagnosis of DeSalvo’s mental condition differed from those of psychiatrists who examined him at Westboro and Bridgewater State Hospitals.
Dr. Brussel maintained that DeSalvo was a schizophrenic, or split personality. The state psychiatrists did not make such a finding.
Bailey will call Dr. Mezer to the stand this morning.
The prosecution plans to present its own psychiatrists to furnish rebuttal testimony. One of these is Dr. Ames Robey, former medical director of Bridgewater State Hospital.