Boston Strangler Truth Is Even More Disturbing Than Fiction

Over the course of 18 months in the idealistic early 1960s, 13 Boston-area women were strangled and sexually assaulted. The elusive killer left behind a grotesque, ritualistic crime scene, as if taunting the people who would encounter it. Bodies were left in suggestive positions. Nylon stockings or other items of their personal clothing were knotted around their necks. Some had bottles, broomsticks or other foreign objects protruding from their bodies. Leaning against the foot of the final victim, strangled on January 4, 1964, stood a cheery greeting card with the text: “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 writer embedded with the state task force overseeing America’s largest manhunt to date. His bestseller about that hunt, The Boston Stranglerwas adapted into a film (1968) with Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, who spurred a true-crime house industry with great staying power.

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

Gerold interviewed every important figure in the investigation during three years of covering the case, including reporter Loretta McLaughlin, the Keira Knightley character. And his front-row seat to history tells a story that differed in important ways from the one coming to the screen this week.

The Hulu movie, written and directed by Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), portrays McLaughlin as a lonely seeker of truth placed against a wall of obstacles, mainly men who are more interested in power and profit than learning the truth or obtaining justice. McLaughlin and her colleague Jean Cole (played by Coon) must pressure investigators to do their jobs. Through their dogged reporting, they identify a prime suspect, a handyman named Albert DeSalvo, whom the police, in their ineptitude, thought 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, almost alone brought to life the investigation, McLaughlin begins to doubt that there was only one murderer. A witness identifies not DeSalvo, but his cellmate George Nassar, as being at the crime scene, and a conspiracy theory is born: Studying newspaper reports with details of the crimes, the inmates clash to pin the strangulations on DeSalvo so the men can split the. reward money for solving the crimes. DeSalvo makes a false confession, trained in the murder details by an investigator eager to close the case. DeSalvo’s lawyer, the infamous F. Lee Bailey of OJ Simpson fame, keeps the confession out of court by securing a book deal that would pay DeSalvo a fortune (and the attorney’s enormous fees). Both the police and state officials, shielded from scrutiny by male newspaper editors, declare victory to a city desperate to move on, basking in the glory of saving the women of Boston from a reign of terror.

“You all created a myth,” Nassar tells McLaughlin, who eventually obtains tapes that, in the film, confirm that the confessions were coached. People wanted to believe it was a 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 an illusion.” At the end, an “s” is added to a title to indicate the new consensus that there are multiple “Boston Stranglers”.

The message of the film is clear: As McLaughlin says, “No one bothered to get to the truth, and people got away with murder.” Men, in particular, sought political, personal, and financial gain before concern for the views or safety of women.

The problem is that the real McLaughlin never believed in the conspiracy story that the film presents, specifically the view that there were multiple killers. (The film says it was “inspired by” real events, although an earlier script said it was “based on a true story” and press material continues to call it that.) In 1965, in the middle of the hunt, she told my grandfather that it defied logic that there would be multiple psychopaths running around Boston strangling women and arranging the crime scenes into similar, grotesque patterns. She reiterated her belief in a single killer in a 1992 review, and said in a 2005 interview about the 13 murders that “the killer, I’m convinced, was Albert DeSalvo, without a doubt.”

The timeline of the film is compressed, an acceptable capitulation to the demands of cinema but one that also moderates the fictionalization of essential plots. In reality, McLaughlin had left the paper by the time 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 to get a release from DeSalvo allowing him to do this, the so-called book deal that F. Lee Bailey struck for DeSalvo.) This was nearly three years after the strangulations ended. It was not McLaughlin, but reportedly a detective, who realized that DeSalvo was out of prison at the time of 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 courageous and deeply empathetic reporter who broke down barriers in what was often an all-male newsroom that called any woman crossing the threshold a “girl.” She convinced her male editors to let her investigate a series of murders that many initially didn’t notice or dismissed as a “nobodies” story. And she played a key role in moving that inquiry forward. (She died in 2018.)

So why does the movie need to make her into a conspiracy theorist, and credit her with feats 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, when a routine procedural becomes, well, a conspiracy thriller. And rightly so, the reality of this case is that the theory of multiple murderers backed by a giant cover-up has been with us since the strangulations began, and for good reason. DeSalvo was never tried for the murders, in large part because Bailey shielded his confession from being admitted. He was stabbed in prison in 1973, shortly after suggesting in a letter that his confession might have been false, which naturally fueled more conspiracies that DeSalvo was not the killer and was part of the cover-up.

Yet while DeSalvo was never convicted of the murders, the evidence is overwhelming that he was the assailant. His confession, which my grandfather was the only journalist to hear at the time it was made, referenced extensive crime details that no one else could have known. (Many focused on the details he got wrong, but he allegedly raped hundreds of women in their homes, and what amazed investigators was not how much he didn’t remember but how much he did.) Several witnesses placed him at the scene of the murders. . And in a 2013 development that should have removed doubts, new DNA evidence made possible by advances in testing technology finally confirmed the link between DeSalvo and the latest 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 male conspiracy fantasy, if one with a #MeToo bent. The film clothes her with views she did not hold, in service to a plot that feeds a need to believe in good women (who bother to reach the truth), and bad men (who only care about power and profit). It then uses her as a vehicle to spout a contrived, Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory, with a shady cover-up at its core.

However, the real truth is, as Nassar says in the film, more disturbing: There are many DeSalvos out there, as seen in the increase in mass shootings, the mental health crisis, and the senselessness of the entry of violence into more and more areas of ours. lives The films invite us to indulge in great stories, in illusions of security, 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 havens, and an ongoing imperative to get to the truth, whether it amuses, comforts or disturbs us.

(tagsTo Translate)Keira Knightley

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