For those who’ve caught glimpses of the new Boston Strangler movie being filmed in local communities, the local shots are a fun bit of Hollywood glitz. But for those with ties to the case, the film has conjured up a different set of emotions, dredging up a slew of memories of the gruesome murders that left the city paralyzed with fear during the 1960s.
After the first strangling happened in Boston in June 1962, and slayings continued and the body count grew, a feeling of terror gripped the city. Bodies of female victims were found in their apartments, positioned in strange ways and with bows tied around their necks, prompting people to rush to buy locks for their doors and stay inside at night. There was a killer on the loose, and no one knew when he would strike next.
The son of a Boston police detective who worked the slayings, the brother of a reporter profiled in the movie, and the nephew of one of the strangler’s victims hope the retelling of this story will provide insight into the desperate search for the truth and the courage of those who would not give up on the case.
The new film stars Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin, who along with fellow reporter Jean Cole, played by Carrie Coon, wrote about the murders in the 1960s while working at the Boston Record American. Filming started Dec. 6 in Belmont and continued in the South End of Boston last week.
John DiNatale’s father, Phil, was a former Boston Police detective and one of the lead investigators on the real case. His father later worked as a consultant on the 1968 Hollywood film, “The Boston Strangler,” which starred Tony Curtis in the role of Albert DeSalvo, who ultimately confessed to being the Boston Strangler and to murdering 13 women between 1962 and 1964.
So much time has passed, DiNatale noted, few people may remember DeSalvo and the real life true crime drama that played out in Boston during those years.
“This is a new story for a whole new generation,” DiNatale said of the new production.
DiNatale hopes the police investigation is portrayed accurately in the new film, and how DeSalvo came to be identified as the Boston Strangler.
“For many years, people thought that the detectives who worked on the case were a bunch of bumbling idiots....which is a shame,” said DiNatale.
DiNatale said his father got a crucial tip that led investigators to set their sights on DeSalvo. It happened in January 1965, when he was contacted by the head of security at Massachusetts General Hospital who received an anonymous letter from a nurse who said she had been assaulted and raped by a man named Albert DeSalvo, and she thought he might be the Boston Strangler.
“They sent that letter to my dad...and that’s how [DeSalvo] became a part of the investigation,” he said. “It was a nurse who sent an anonymous letter to the MGH.”
From all the work that he put into the case, DiNatale said his father “was always convinced that Albert was the Boston Strangler.”
DeSalvo was never charged with the killings. In January 1967 he was sentenced to life in prison for a series of assaults on women that happened in the summer and fall of 1964. In February 1967 he made a brief escape from Bridgewater State Hospital and was later captured in Lynn. He then spent the rest of his life locked up, and met a violent end when he was stabbed to death at Walpole State Prison in 1973.
The Boston Globe reported that DeSalvo once told a correction officer at Bridgewater State Hospital: “I know I’m famous and when people come through here on tours, if they point at me and say, ‘There’s the Boston Strangler,’ I don’t mind. But that’s only between the hours of 9 and 5. I have working hours just like any other celebrity, and when I get through work, I want to be able to go back to my room and have a little privacy, just like other celebrities want their private life.”
Neither Jean Cole or Loretta McLaughlin will get to see themselves portrayed in this latest film production (Cole died in 2015, and McLaughlin died in 2018).
Kevin Cole worked with his sister, Jean, at the Record-American newspaper and recalled the feeling in Boston in the 1960s, as women began turning up dead in their homes.
“It was a scary time,” said Cole in a phone interview. “It kept getting bigger and bigger as different women were getting killed.”
Cole said his sister was one of the first journalists to connect the murders.
“She was one of the first ones to come out and say it was one person,” said Cole.
Cole said as female reporters, his sister and McLaughlin had to overcome a lot of abuse and discrimination on the job. Back then, women wrote about beauty and housekeeping — not crime.
“They broke the ceiling. They covered everything,” said Cole. “I’m very proud of them both.”
Cole worked as a photographer at the Record-American and had the opportunity of photographing DeSalvo. Cole said he was not an intimidating figure.
“He was so unassuming,” said Cole.
Casey Sherman is the nephew of Mary Sullivan, a 19-year-old victim who was found dead in her apartment on Charles Street on Jan. 4, 1964. Sherman wrote about her murder in his book “A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler.”
When it comes to the new movie, Sherman said he’s “interested to see what they put on screen, for sure.”
“The victims in the Boston Strangler case...came from all walks of life. The sense of terror that ran throughout the city at the time was unprecedented,” said Sherman. “My Aunt Mary Sullivan was not only a victim, she was the youngest and final victim in this two and a half year reign of terror.”
Sherman believes that more than one man was responsible for killing his aunt and the 12 other women.
“There are a lot of unresolved issues when it comes to the strangler case itself, but at least a project like this keeps the conversation going,” said Sherman. “Remembering the women that were victimized here is an important thing. So, you know, I’m looking forward to the film, and watching just like everybody else would be watching, but with an eye of scrutiny, obviously, since I know so much about the case.”
Sullivan’s murder made headlines again in 2013, decades after her death, when DNA testing was used to confirm that DeSalvo raped and strangled her.
Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis was the top cop in Boston at the time. He grew up hearing about the Boston Strangler, and the case was always on the back of his mind.
“I mean, it was certainly a big deal to me personally,” said Davis. “When I was a little kid I read all the headlines. My dad was a police officer, a detective at the time, so I was fascinated by the case.”
Davis explained how Boston police got the initial DNA sample by following DeSalvo’s nephew to a construction site where he was working and taking a water bottle that he discarded.
“There was enough information in the DNA sample from the water bottle that matched the fluid stain that was left there on the night of the homicide,” said Davis. “It was at that point where we had enough to go to court and request the exhumation of DeSalvo’s body, because everything matched up.”
In July 2013 DeSalvo’s body was exhumed and his DNA was sent to a lab. When the results came back, it matched the DNA in the seminal fluid that was recovered from Sullivan’s Beacon Hill apartment.
“We were thrilled,” said Davis.
Davis said getting the DNA confirmation, all those years later, was a highlight of his career.
“For being a young kid and having this thing — literally 40 or 50 years later — come back around and be in charge during the final conclusion... closing this case was one of my most exciting experiences as a police professional.”
Davis said it also showed how police never stop working on a case.
“Regardless of who the victim is, we really will do everything we can to bring closure to the families involved,” said Davis. “There were a lot of victims in [the Boston Strangler] case, and you know, as to how many were actually victimized by DeSalvo, I don’t know that we can say definitively, but I can say that this case, just like every other homicide case, is very important to us, and we never close the books on them.”
The following is the list of Boston Strangler victims:
Anna Slesers, 55
77 Gainsborough St., Boston
June 14, 1962
Mary Mullen, 85
1435 Commonwealth Ave., Boston
June 28, 1962
Nina Nichols, 68
1940 Commonwealth Ave., Boston
June 30, 1962
Helen Blake, 65
73 Newhall St., Lynn
June 30, 1962
Ida Irga, 75
7 Grove St., Boston
Aug. 19, 1962
Jane Sullivan, 67
435 Columbia Road, Dorchester
Aug. 21, 1962
Sophie Clark, 20
315 Huntington Ave., Boston
Dec. 5, 1962
Patricia Bissette, 22
515 Park Drive, Boston
Dec. 31, 1962
Mary Brown, 69
319 Park St., Lawrence
March 6, 1963
Beverly Samans, 26
4 University Road, Cambridge
May 8, 1963
Evelyn Corbin, 58
224 Lafayette St., Salem
Sept. 8, 1963
Joann Graff, 22
54 Essex St., Lawrence
Nov. 23, 1963
Mary Sullivan, 19
44-A Charles St., Boston
Jan. 4, 1964
Emily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.