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Who Was the Boston Strangler? He Confessed to 13 Murders But Was Never Charged—DNA Tested 50 Years Later Proved His Identity

Did he try to clear his name before he died?
Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo
Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo. Getty Images

It’s been one of crime’s biggest mysteries and for more than 50 years, the question of who the Boston Stranger is has been rife with controversy and conspiracy. Even though local police’s primary suspect confessed to the slaying of at least 13 women, authorities had insufficient evidence to charge him with the crimes.

Over the course of about 20 months, from 1962 to 1964, 13 women aged 19 to 85 were brutally murdered in Boston and in nearby cities, many were sexually assaulted and killed in their homes. 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, the last of the victims, was found raped and murdered in her apartment in January 1964. The killer’s first victim was 55-year-old Anna Slesers, who was sexually assaulted and strangled in her apartment on June 14, 1962. The hard work of two investigative journalists who would raise the alarm about the multiple body count is the basis for the Hulu film Boston Strangler, starring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon. An inmate at a state mental hospital with a history of burglary confessed to the murders but because this pre-dates DNA evidence, investigators couldn’t link him physically to the crime scenes.

Who is the Boston Strangler?

Albert DeSalvo, Boston Strangler
Albert DeSalvo, Boston Strangler. Photo by Ollie Noonan/The Boston Globe via Getty

Who is the Boston Strangler? Prior to DNA profiling as a forensic technique, Albert DeSalvo was widely believed to be the Boston Strangler—having confessed to the murder of the 13 victims. He was never charged or convicted, however, as the technology that could link him physically to the crimes would not become widely used for another 20 years.

But in July 2013, more than half a century after the Strangler claimed his first victim, members of the Boston Police Department’s cold case team and the attorney general’s office tested seminal fluid samples taken from Mary Sullivan’s body—the Strangler’s final victim—and the blanket on which it was found. The DNA profiles matched one from a water bottle that had recently been used by one of DeSalvo’s nephews.

“The evidence in this case never changed, but the scientific ability to use that evidence has surpassed every hope and expectation of investigators who were first assigned to the case,” District Attorney Daniel F. Conley of Suffolk County told the New York Times in July 2013. “For almost five decades, the only link between Albert DeSalvo and Mary Sullivan was his confession,”. “That confession has been the subject of skepticism and controversy from almost the moment it was given.”

After a judge granted authorities to exhume DeSalvo’s body, DNA tests confirmed he was responsible for the murder of Sullivan and “most likely” the Boston Strangler, given the match produced by the DNA sample excluded 99.99 percent of other suspects. “It’s a great day. This is now full justice for my aunt, Mary Sullivan,” said her nephew, Casey Sherman, per The Guardian at the time. “He’s the killer of my aunt, which is all this has been about for me.” Though DeSalvo has been conclusively linked to Mary Sullivan’s murder, there are doubts as to whether he’s responsible for the slayings of the other Strangler victims.

How was Albert DeSalvo caught?

Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo
Albert DeSalvo. Photo by Paul J. Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty

How was Albert DeSalvo caught? In the fall of 1964, police were also trying to save a series of rapes committed by a perpetrator dubbed the “Measuring Man” or the “Green Man” in addition to trying to solve the Strangler cases. After a young woman was sexually assaulted in her home on October 27, 1964, her description of her attacker led police to DeSalvo and when his photo was published in the newspapers, many other women came forward to identify him as the man that raped them.

DeSalvo was arrested in connection to the “Green Man” rapes but was not considered a Boston Strangler suspect. DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital for psychiatric observation and after he was charged of rape, he confessed to the murders during a conversation with his cellmate George Nasser and Nasser told his attorney.

While he was never charged or convicted of any of the Strangler’s crimes, DeSalvo was given a life sentence for the “Green Man” rapes in 1967 and would serve out the sentence at a maximum-security facility known as Walpole. Seven years later, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in his cell.

In May 2021, Daily Mail revealed DeSalvo was murdered in prison just two weeks after mailing a letter from his cell in which he vowed to “clear his name” of the Strangler murders. The letters were part of a collection of correspondence between DeSalvo and a family who’d met him while visiting a friend at Walpole State Prison.

He wrote: “I’ll see what I can do to clear my name of it now, as I have been used in the past by these socalled [sic] big people, now it’s my turn…I’ll be telling the truth, something they don’t know how to do…people like F. Lee Baily and Senator Brooks and a lot of other big names.”

He continued: “It’s time for a new ball game as it is called…I’ve got to think of my children and the suffering and burden I have put on them…In time you’ll understand what I am saying or trying to say, as it will happen in about a month or so…I’m going to drop a bomb!! I’m sick and tired of people using me….they have did me wrong, and I haven’t gotten a penny from any of it.”

So why would a man confess to crimes he didn’t commit? In The Boston Stranglers, the author Susan Kelly writes that “DeSalvo was told that the sale of his life story and confession would make him a great deal of money, which could be given to his beloved wife and children for their support… By branding himself as a serial killer, Albert would become world-famous, something he dearly wanted to be,” she says.

She also states that “his attorney convinced him that he would be confined to a posh mental hospital—John Hopkins, Albert claimed—if he identified himself as the Strangler.” Kelly speculates that there isn’t just one Boston Strangler, but several. “There was not one Boston Strangler, but rather a bare minimum of six and much more likely eight or nine,” she wrote.

Boston Strangler is available to stream on Hulu.

The Boston Stranglers

Boston Stranglers
Boston Stranglers by Susan Kelly. Image: Amazon

Author Susan Kelly’s detailed investigation shows us the true DeSalvo–a pathological liar whose hunger for celebrity drove him to false confessions–and indicates that the stranglings were committed by more than one killer. In an eye-opening update that explores stunning DNA findings, a shocking re-autopsy, and expert profiling evidence, she shows why this savage, unsolved case continues to fascinate and haunt us.

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