It was their status as “nobodies” that first drew journalist Loretta McLaughlin to the victims of the Boston Strangler, she once wrote.
Where an editor saw a handful of unrelated deaths, McLaughlin saw a series of connected murders that were likely committed by a single person. Writing for the Boston Record American, she worked with colleague Jean Cole to write what became the first series of news articles on the Boston Strangler, who killed at least 13 women in and around the city between 1962 and 1964.
Their story is retold in “Boston Strangler,” a movie released last month on Hulu to mixed reviews. Keira Knightley plays McLaughlin, with co-star Carrie Coon as Cole.
Albert DeSalvo admitted to 11 of the murders but was never convicted of them, and his confessions had long been questioned because of inconsistencies in his story. He was convicted of unrelated rape charges and sentenced to life in prison, where he was fatally stabbed by an inmate in 1973.
In 2013, DNA from DeSalvo’s remains was matched to evidence from a 1964 slaying that was part of the Strangler’s murder spree.
Friends and co-workers of McLaughlin, who died in 2018, said her legacy as a journalist extends far beyond her investigation into the sensational crimes. As a reporter, she championed women’s rights and drew attention to local and national failures to address the AIDS crisis. By the time she retired in 1993, McLaughlin had become The Boston Globe’s editorial page editor.
In the film, a young McLaughlin’s editor declares the first few murders a nonstory, citing the victims’ lack of notoriety. She responds that their anonymity is exactly what makes the story worth chasing. A similar conversation played out in real life, McLaughlin wrote in the Globe nearly 30 years after the first murder.
“Why should anyone murder four obscure women,” she wrote. “That was what made them so interesting ... sisters in anonymity, like all of us.”
McLaughlin may have described herself as nearly anonymous, but her colleagues at the Globe remember her as “a force” — a larger-than-life reporter and a leading voice of the paper’s editorial team.
“She was legendary,” said Linda Matchan, who started at the Globe’s Living Arts section in 1980, just a few years after McLaughlin arrived. “She scared the hell out of me.”
When Matchan ended up sharing a table with McLaughlin at an awards dinner, she was initially concerned, unsure if the legendary journalist would even talk to her.
“She was so nice and warm, and when I got up to get the award, she just slapped me on the back,” Matchan said with a laugh. “Forty years later and I still remember how much it meant to me that she seemed proud of me.”
Janet Knott, a photojournalist who traveled with McLaughlin to Bangladesh and Mexico, said that after their trip she could always step into McLaughlin’s office, “pick up my feet,” and share a laugh or a source. Knott said she heard little about McLaughlin’s work on the Boston Strangler case until she got to know McLaughlin as a friend.
“She was very humble,” Knott said. “She wasn’t walking around touting her past accomplishments.”
Knott said McLaughlin was “supremely deadline-driven” and came into interviews with hours of preparation behind her. With other reporters, McLaughlin was welcoming and generous with her abundance of sources, despite her “no-nonsense” reputation, Knott said.
“Anyone that she coached she wanted to be as serious in journalism as she was, but still fun-loving,” Knott said.
Loretta took a break from journalism in the mid-1970s, working as a science writer at Harvard University and managing public relations for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. From there, she went to the Boston Herald American before joining the Globe’s staff in 1976.
She was keenly aware of the industry’s discrimination against women, friends said, and became accustomed to advocating for herself.
“Loretta had a very sharp tongue, and I would say even sharper elbows,” said Walter Robinson, who joined the Globe in 1972 and went on to lead the Globe’s groundbreaking Spotlight investigation into abuses by the Catholic Church.
Robinson said he asked McLaughlin’s advice whenever he covered an issue she was involved in, and she always had a connection — an address, a phone number — to pass along to younger reporters. She was unassuming, he said, and her smoking habit fit in well with the newsroom culture of the time.
“She had a great Boston accent,” he recalled. “My memory of her is there was always smoke pouring out of her.”
In 1991, McLaughlin took a new position as the associate editor of the Globe’s editorial page. The next year, she became the paper’s editorial page editor — a role in which she served for about a year until she turned 65, a mandatory retirement age for some Globe employees at the time. In that role, she wrote op-eds highlighting the AIDS epidemic in war-torn Rwanda, condemning the American health care system, and endorsing Bill Clinton for president.
Dan Wasserman, a longtime Globe cartoonist who worked with McLaughlin in her editorial position, said she was a “perfect” fit for the role. As an editor, she was “both supportive and hands-off” and was careful to ensure her editorials could speak and advocate for those without a megaphone of their own, Wasserman said.
“She liked using her journalistic skills and her perch on the editorial page to make stuffy people, entitled people, feel uncomfortable,” Wasserman said. “She thought that was part of the job.”
Wasserman has not seen “Boston Strangler,” but said his former editor would probably feel vindicated to see her legacy honored, and also “tickled” to be portrayed by Knightley. Knightley’s “aristocratic” vibe is “pretty far from the way Loretta presented,” he said, laughing.
“She was tough, she was very frank,” Wasserman said. “She was a tough newsroom gal in all the best senses.”