Last fall, when Evan Peters turned into the infamous serial killer for Netflix’s series “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” the entire world turned its attention to the true crime adaptation. The latest release, “Boston Strangler,” is the newest addition to the long list of films that are based on true events, let alone ones based on serial killers. The film is based on a string of murders that happened between 1962 and 1965. A total of 13 women between the ages of 19 and 85 were sexually abused and killed in the areas around Boston. All the victims were found with a garrote of nylon stockings around their necks. In the early 1960s, the term serial killer was still unknown to the people belonging to the law enforcement department. So, the murders were often referred to as the “Silk Stocking Murders” The killer was often identified as the “phantom killer.” The killer earned this nickname because of his phantom-like existence and his impeccable convincing power. The women he killed somehow were convinced that he was a regular handyman, a maintenance guy, or a model scout and he was not only trusted but also allowed to enter their apartments or personal residences. The killer was christened the ‘Boston Strangler’ by two investigative journalists, Loretta MacLaughlin and Jean Cole; this was the name that stuck.
It all began in June of 1962 when a 55-year-old woman named Anna Slesers was brutally sexually assaulted and murdered in her Boston apartment. Her murder was followed by two others—all elderly women who were eliminated from this planet in the comfort of their own homes. This, in turn, earned him the status of ‘mother killer.’ It was not until the fourth murder that the story was picked up by Loretta MacLaughlin of “The Record American,” which later came to be known as the “Boston Herald.” Matt Ruskin’s film “Boston Strangler” follows the journey of two female reporters, Loretta MacLaughlin (played by Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (portrayed by Carrie Coon), as they tried to find out the real culprit.
This film is less about the murderer and more about these two women who put their lives in peril to unearth the truth. It is more about the struggles and sexism that these two women faced than about the victims and their families demanding justice. Before this case landed on her lap, Loretta MacLaughlin was a mother of three children, who also reported from the American lifestyle desk. It is obvious to say that women in the early 1960s were never regarded as serious professionals in the field of journalism. Therefore, when Loretta went to seek permission from one of her editors so that she could begin covering the recent deaths caused by strangling around the city, her editor snubbed her, reminding her that these women were practically nobodies. This is what stuck with Loretta. She began racking her brain about why someone would undertake the trouble of killing nobodies. This instance has been written and played out with a lot of intensity and a high chord of drama in the film.
Loretta MacLaughlin, in the film, questions her editor if he is aware of the fact that it is only mundane nobodies who read their paper and that the human-interest story like that of the murders of these elderly ladies should be treated as top priority for the newspaper. It was a challenge for the two women to keep their investigation running. They were constantly looked down upon, the police didn’t want to cooperate and share new leads, and there were constant attempts from within the office at ‘Record American’ to kill their story and eventually the investigation. Loretta was the first to break the story that these murders were probably committed by a single assailant. In fact, the theory put forward by the police towards the murderer pointed to a single person being responsible for all the murders. After the murder of six elderly women, the killer began to target younger women. There was a lull of a few months between the murders of the older ladies and those of the younger women.
Around seven more women were murdered, taking the toll of deaths up to thirteen. Albert De Salvo (played by David Dastmalchian) was arrested after the thirteenth death. De Salvo was a history-sheeter responsible for harassing women in counties adjacent to Boston. He was imprisoned at Bridgewater State Hospital on account of mental instability. There, he confessed to his cellmate George Nassar (played by Greg Vrogstros) that he was somehow related to the murders committed by the Boston Strangler. George Nassar got him in touch with his hot-shot lawyer, F. Lee Bailey (portrayed by Luke Kirby). Bailey promised that if De Salvo confessed to all thirteen murders, he would get him a five-figure book deal, which in turn would secure the financial condition of Albert’s family. But Bailey’s arrangement came with a catch; the D.A. ‘s office that was going to prosecute de Salvo could not use his confession in the court for conviction.
In fact, de Salvo would be imprisoned for life, not for the murders but for other petty harassment charges. In other words, this was a tactic to deny true justice to the victims’ families. George Nassar’s interest and involvement, in this case, were somehow suspicious. The film portrays how Nassar was imagined to be a prime suspect in the case too, but he could not be arrested on account of insufficient evidence. When all the legal proceedings were happening, a section of people who were closely following the case had their doubts about Albert De Salvo being the real ‘Boston Strangler.’ Later investigations revealed that there was probably more than one murderer—it became the case of the “Boston Stranglers’. Loretta MacLaughlin had, in fact, theorized in her last story about the murders that the wide range of publicity that the cases got, including the subtle details about the perpetrator’s mode of operation while committing those crimes, made a good excuse for ex-boyfriends and sexual abusive bosses to take revenge, respectively, on their indifferent girlfriends and secretaries who had become liabilities. In 1984, however, Albert de Salvo denounced his confession before he was stabbed to death. It was not until the 1990s that the forensic science of DNA evaluation was developed. In 2013, almost fifty years after the murders, the DNA evidence found from the last murder scene was identified as being that of de Salvo’s. Therefore, de Salvo was proven guilty of murdering at least one of the thirteen women. The rest of the murders still remain unsolved.
Although the film mostly follows the investigations of Loretta and Jean during the early 1960s, Alberto’s denunciation of the confession, which came around two decades later, has also been fictionalized in the film. This is one of the creative liberties that the director Matt Ruskin has taken to show his audiences the bigger picture. Apart from two suspects, Albert de Salvo and George Nassar, there was a third suspect in the case. He was also a cell inmate of the two mentioned above. The film has provided a pseudonym for him—Daniel Marsh (played by Ryan Winkles). Daniel Marsh was an ex-Harvard student whose ex-girlfriend was on the list of victims. After Marsh moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a number of murders started being reported in the area.
“Boston Strangler” is an ode to two female reporters. It successfully pays tribute to their efforts. The film is currently streaming on Hulu. It is the perfect watch to celebrate Women’s History Month.