Carrie Coon and Keira Knightley in ‘Boston Strangler’ Credit – Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
In the wake of a string of popular true-crime adaptations ranging from HBO’s The Staircase to Netflix’s Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story comes Hulu’s new The Boston Strangler movie, out March 17.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), The Boston Strangler tells the story of 13 women who were murdered in and around Boston in the early 1960s, sometimes referred to as the “Silk Stocking Murders,” from the perspective of the two journalists who broke the story on the connected killings, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley ) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon).
As investigative reporters for the Record American (a predecessor of the Boston Herald), McLaughlin and Cole faced sexism and pressure to drop the story both from within their own newsroom and from a skeptical and uncooperative police force as they sought to expose the truth and bring justice to the women who were killed—similar to in the movie.
Thirty years after the first string of murders, McLaughlin wrote a story for the The Boston Globe about what pushed her to cover the case, explaining how it was the fourth murder in the summer of 1962 that “galvanized” her attention. “An editor disputed the value of a series on the four dead women, noting that they were ‘nobodies,'” she wrote. “That was it exactly, I felt. Why should anyone murder four obscure women. That was what made them so interesting…sisters in anonymity, like all of us.”
What role did McLaughlin and Cole play in the case?
Over the course of the nearly two years that the 13 victims, ranging in age from 19 to 85-years-old, were killed, McLaughlin and Cole led the charge on the theory that the grisly murders were the work of a single assailant, whom they dubbed the “Boston Strangler.” This was nearly a decade before the term “serial killer” was coined.
The first six murders, all of older single women who had seemingly willingly allowed the killer to enter their homes, took place in the summer of 1962. There was then a months-long lull in the killing spree until 20-year-old Sophie Clark was found strangled to death in her apartment that December. The next six victims, murdered between December 1962 and January 1964, varied in age from 19 to 69 years old. The majority were sexually assaulted before being strangled to death.
McLaughlin and Cole began publishing a series of investigative reports on the killings in January 1963, with the first story bearing the newspaper’s questionably chosen headline of “Two Girl Reporters Analyze Strangler.” This launched a month-long run of nearly 30 articles about the murders, according to Smithsonian Magazine. It was at this point in time that McLaughlin and Cole began to come up against significant resistance from authorities who took the stance that the level of detail included in their reporting wasn’t helping the investigation and could inspire copycat crimes.
As for how accurately The Boston Strangler portrays McLaughlin and Cole, Ruskin told Collider that while parts of the movie are dramatized, he tried his best to create a true-to-life depiction of the two women.
“I developed a personal relationship with Loretta and [Jean’s] children. I got to know their families very well, and getting the story right was very important to me,” he said. “So I wanted to convey the spirit of these women in the truest way that I could. That said, in terms of trying to tell a story that spanned several years in a feature film, you obviously have to take some liberties.”
Who was the Boston Strangler?
In October 1964, 34-year-old Albert DeSalvo (played by David Dastmalchian) was arrested for sexually assaulting a woman after pretending to be a police officer to gain entry into her home. When his photo was published in the papers, several other women came forward to say that he had committed similar assaults against them, a set of attacks that came to be known as the “Green Man” crimes.
DeSalvo was sent to await trial at Bridgewater State Hospital, a state facility for the criminally insane, and it was there that he allegedly confessed to his cellmate, George Nassar (played by Greg Vrotos), that he was responsible for the murders associated with the Boston Strangler case. Nassar relayed the confession to his lawyer, famous defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (played by Luke Kirby), who took on DeSalvo as a client when he became the prime suspect in the case.
Read more: Keira Knightley Investigates a Serial Killer in the Tense, Absorbing The Boston Strangler
Even with DeSalvo’s own confession, there was not enough evidence to prosecute him for the Boston Strangler murders. In 1967, he was tried on charges related to the “Green Man” crimes and sentenced to life in prison for armed robbery and sexual assault. DeSalvo recounted his confession in prison in 1973 shortly before he was stabbed to death by a fellow inmate.
Some have suggested that Nassar, who is serving a life sentence for a separate murder conviction, is a more likely suspect than DeSalvo and coached him to confess with promises that his family would be taken care of financially. In an interview with WBZ-TV in 2018, Nassar denied having taken part in the killings and claimed he told Bailey to take on DeSalvo’s case. “We were setting it all up, saying Al you’re going to confess, you’re going to trial, you’re going to do your book, we’re going to take care of your family and he was saying ok, ok , ok,” he said.
The Boston Strangler posits that another likely suspect was Daniel Marsh (played by Ryan Winkles), a pseudonym given by the movie to an ex-Harvard Student who was also one of DeSalvo’s fellow inmates at Bridgewater and had once dated one of the victims. In the following years, Marsh moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where a series of similar murders later took place.
Forty years after DeSalvo’s death, a 2013 DNA analysis ultimately linked him to the murder of Mary Sullivan, the last and youngest of the victims associated with the Boston Strangler case. The question of whether DeSalvo committed the other 12 murders remains unanswered.
At the time of the positive DNA identification in 2013, the New York Times quoted Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley as saying that DeSalvo’s confession had “been the subject of skepticism and controversy from almost the moment it was given.”