Saturday, 21 February 2009

Boston's Real Dark Shadows....1962-1964

Hello Retro Bloggers!
This update may seem rather unusual and not in keeping with my normally light and breezy retro topics but I felt a need to add some serious news items to my reflective blog mix.
Growing up in the Boston area has provided many unique and wonderful memories for me and many of them are represented on the various blogs I run.
But some memories were not…and I mean…Not Warm or Fuzzy!
From a very young age I was keenly aware of “bad people” who hurt others and the phrase…The Boston Strangler was known to me as a demon figure that haunted the Boston area in the years just before my birth and committed unspeakably horrific crimes. My mother had mentioned the fear that all women regardless of age, race or creed felt during those years from 1962 until 1964.
The well travelled cobbled streets of Boston became a nightmare of shadows and fear at night…answering the doorbell became a life or death decision for some very unlucky women.

I knew very little about the facts of the crimes until I stumbled upon an old copy of Gerald Frank’s 1966 book, The Boston Strangler in a house I was cleaning as a part-time job when I was 16.
The now infamous book that many experts in modern criminology feel contains false and misleading information about the murders loomed large on the shelf and caught my eye.

I asked the homeowner if I could borrow the book. She looked at me with horror and asked if I really wanted to read it. I said I grew up knowing bits and pieces of this lurid Boston tale and I wanted to know the facts…the “facts” as were recorded in 1966 and soon sold on to Hollywood for the movie rights.
I took the book home and read it. Feeling shocked and numb I had to sit and discuss my reading with my mother who had noticed the book in my room.
Together we discussed what the book said and what she recalled about those strange and terrifying times back in the early 60’s.
She explained how the first killing went nearly unreported but then once the third and fourth victims were found, the papers and TV went overboard. “Phantom” was what many reports called this killer because of the lack of signs of forced entry and often the doors were locked again when the “Phantom” left. The older and younger victims made all women feel like they could be next. My mom said she began to dread coming home alone from work to our apartment before my dad was there. She would look under beds and in the closets. It became a ritual with thousands of women in the metro-Boston area for the years the killings were taking place.
As my mother spoke, I could feel cold chills on my spine…like I was hearing a ghost story at a sleepover. Hearing these events from my mother’s point of view made it seem even more real than a dusty book…I began to wish I had left the book back on the shelf!
I found myself…like many others over the years…not sold on all that was written and felt there must be more to this story. It seemed all too simple. Albert DeSalvo almost seemed to want to be convicted of these crimes and so eager to “tell all” about each killing.

The late 60’s movie based on the book left me with too many questions. It was a fine movie but the so called “real” events were not adding up for me.
I was lucky enough in my freshman year of college to have been assigned a chance to do some non-fiction research and writing about a topic of my choice. I chose to take my own look at the strangler killings in Boston and write my own views on the subject.
It was 1983 and my best source for information as a student was using the newsroom at the BPL and scanning through countless newspapers from the years 1962-1964.
It took ages and I soon found myself stepping back in time with each visit to the pages of the past. The headlines and photos were so stark and each victim looked at me with friendly eyes and sweet smiles. The victims became real. The crimes were becoming almost folklore…but each victim held the real truth and that grabbed me like a vice grip.

Susan Kelly's groundbreaking research and book of the mid-90’s The Boston Stranglers; The Wrongful Conviction of Albert Desalvo and the True Story of Eleven Shocking Murders would have been a burst of needed fresh air to this stale case back in 1983. Kelly took a look at these same newspapers and soon could trace many of the same “details” that Albert DeSalvo used in his so-called confessions to the crimes. The papers gave little doubt as to much of the details involving each crime and even published the addresses of the victims! For a petty thief who knew how to enter an apartment, Albert was able to visit and see first hand each layout. Albert was fascinated by the case and needed to feel fame…even this demonic type. According to Kelly, DeSalvo craved notoriety at any cost. He had committed many crimes involving breaking and entering and sexual assaults…but these sexual assaults involved measuring and “touching and fondling” attractive younger ladies as he posed as a sort of talent scout. His history and family life left him wide open for sexual fantasies, sexual exploitation and these “petty” style crimes. Kelly points out that DeSalvo just did not have the “killer” instinct to do what the various crimes indicated had been done. Even before Kelly’s outstanding work, I was struck by the persona of Albert and his mild mannered ways. His closest family and friends did not believe him even remotely capable of these crimes at the time. The way he drank in the fame and his notoriously perfect memory of each crime scene seemed like a gimmick or some sort of set up even back in 1983.
Just looking at the case of victim number two, sixty-eight-year-old Nina Nichols, gave me serious doubts about Albert and his guilt. Nina was one of the older victims, not a “would you like to be a model” type by any means. She was chatting on the phone with a relative whom she was about to visit later that day in the evening for supper. While on the phone the doorbell rang. Her relative recalled that Nina said she would see her in a few hours and hung up to answer the door. She said she was not expecting anyone that day to call on her. Nina did not show up for dinner later as planned and in time the grim reason became known. Albert called on attractive young women to play his “fondling” games with. He would ring bells to gain entry into their apartments. As a petty thief, he broke into empty apartments. This new style of the killer, ringing bells and pretending to be a workman sent by the owner to check paint or pipes was not his style to my knowledge. The apartment was ransacked but nothing was taken. A thief would take something. In Nina’s case and in many of the others, the various pieces of this “Albert the strangler” puzzle just did not fit! Also sharing a cell with a man that some crime experts believe may very well have strangled some of the victims did not help the case for DeSalvo being the "strangler" as we look back now. Together they may have hatched a scheme to make money for their families based on the fame that came with that infamous title.
The amount of leaks from the crime investigation team and the possible “feeding” of vital information to Albert all look highly suspicious to crime writers today.
AND…several witnesses who said they saw the “strangler” at the time of some of the various strangling deaths were sure DeSalvo was NOT the man they saw…Mmmm?

Now using Kelly’s book and my memories of my research back in 1983, I can clearly see how the theory of multiple killers makes sense. I noted in my paper the strange and inconsistent choice of victims…the old…the young. Two very different groups. I relied on Frank’s book containing a theory of 1966 that Albert’s moods and various angry states were depicted by the two groups. Mothers and wives more or less. Today Albert is mad at his wife, thus a younger victim dies. Repressed mother issues of another day would result in an older victim. Mmmm?
I wrote it in my paper but found myself thinking it was all too perfect. Kelly was bold enough to say it was hogwash and stated that there were too many things that did not add up about each killing and the possibility of “many” copycat killers was very real!
Albert himself was about to reveal some “shocking” news about the killings back in 1973 but he was murdered in prison the day before his set meeting. Albert never shared all he had to say but rumors suggest he was about to un-confess to the crimes of 1962-1964 and shed light on the real killer behind at least some of the crimes.
Albert was a perfect man to lay these killings on back in the 1960’s. Boston wanted answers. Women wanted to feel safe. The “phantom” needed a name and face.
It was a solution and the public seemed at ease with it.
But families and friends of the various victims were not so sure. Too many unanswered questions. Albert’s family were never satisfied with these all too simple explanations of events. They never believed Albert was the killer and felt he had been a willing scapegoat.

In recent years one brave family was certain Albert was not the killer and felt the killer may well be still alive and free. After much tireless work and campaigning, Mary Sullivan’s (The last and youngest victim in the series of crimes) family had her body exhumed and the DNA remains found on her body did NOT match DeSalvo's DNA. So it would seem that he was not responsible for her death…leaving the haunting question....who really was?
This case will not rest. Too many questions remain. Time may reveal more facts and less fiction about these terrible events that gripped Boston in those early years of the 1960’s!