DeSalvo was born on September 3, 1931 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to Frank and Charlotte DeSalvo, he had four siblings. His father was a violent alcoholic, who at one point knocked out all of his wife’s teeth and bent her fingers back until they broke in front of their children. DeSalvo tortured animals as a child, and began shoplifting and stealing in early adolescence, frequently crossing paths with the law.
In November 1943, the 12-year-old DeSalvo was first arrested for battery and robbery. In December of the same year he was sent to the Lyman School for Boys. In October 1944, he was paroled and started working as a delivery boy. In August 1946, he returned to the Lyman School for stealing an automobile. After completing his second sentence, DeSalvo joined the Army.
He was honourably discharged after his first tour of duty. He re-enlisted and, in spite of being tried in a court-martial, DeSalvo was again honorably discharged. DeSalvo served as a Military Police Sergeant with the 2nd Squadron, 14th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Pictures of DeSalvo being arrested on Saturday February 25, 1967 show him in U.S. Navy Dress Blue Uniform with Petty Officer 3rd Class insignia on his sleeve.
After he had been discharged from the army, he settled down and married his sweetheart, Irmgard Beck, a girl from Germany. They lived modestly and, despite Irmgard giving birth to a handicapped child, the family managed to sustain itself. Irmgard was aware that DeSalvo was highly sexed and tried to avoid intercourse for fear of having another handicapped baby. However, a healthy boy was born and DeSalvo appeared to become a conscientious family man, liked and appreciated by colleagues and his boss. He was also known to be an outrageous braggart, which perhaps led the police to later disbelieve his claims to be the Strangler.
Just under three weeks later on June 28, 1962, 85-year-old Mary Mullen was also found murdered in her home. Two days later the body of 68-year-old Nina Nichols was also discovered in the Brighton area of Boston. Again, it appeared to be a burglary despite valuable silver that appeared untouched. The ransacking didn’t seem to make sense to detectives. Nichols was also found in a state of undress, her legs wide open and her stocking tops tied in a bow. Was this the trademark of the same killer?
Then, on the same day, a second body was discovered a few miles north of Boston, in the suburb of Lynn. Helen Blake was a 65-year-old divorcee. Her murder was more gruesome. She had suffered lacerations to her vagina and anus. Again the bow trademark was evident; this time made from tying her bra around her neck. Like the previous crimes, the scene appeared to be a burglary.
After this brutal slaying, it was clear that Boston had in its midst a psychotic serial killer. Police Commissioner Edmund McNamara cancelled all police leave due to the severity of the situation, and a warning went out via the media to Boston’s female population. Women were advised to lock their doors and be cautious of strangers. Police profiling had already decided that in all probability they were looking for a psychopath, whose hatred of older women, may actually be linked to his own relationship with his mother.
It wasn’t long before McNamara’s fears were realized, on August 19 a 75-year-old widow Ida Irga was to be the next victim found, again she had been strangled. She lay on her back on the floor wearing a brown nightdress, which was ripped and exposed her body. Her legs were apart and resting on two chairs and a cushion had been placed under her buttocks. Again there was no sign of forced entry.
The police, who were now desperate, even sought the help of a clairvoyant. He described the killer as a mental patient who had absconded from Boston State Hospital on the days the killings took place. However, this was soon discounted when another murder was committed. On September 8, 1963, in Salem, Evelyn Corbin, youthful-looking 58-year-old divorcee became the latest victim. Corbin was found nude and on her bed face up. Her underwear had been stuffed in her mouth and again there were traces of semen, both on lipstick stains and in her mouth. Corbin’s apartment had been ransacked in a similar fashion.
On November 25, Joann Graff, a 23-year-old industrial designer was raped and killed in her apartment in the Lawrence section of the city. Several descriptions of her attacker matched those of the man who had asked to paint Sophie Clark’s neighbours flat. The description detailed a man wearing dark green slacks, dark shirt and jacket. On January 4, 1964, one of the most gruesome murders was discovered when two women came across the body of their roommate. Mary Sullivan was found dead sitting on her bed, her back against the headboard. She had been strangled with a dark stocking. She had been sexually assaulted with a broom handle. This obscenity was rendered even more disturbing by the fact that a Happy New Year card lay wedged between her feet. The same hallmarks of the killer were evident; a ransacked apartment, few valuables taken and the victims strangled with their own underwear or scarves, which were tied into bows.
The city was panic stricken and the situation prompted the drafting in of a top investigator to head the hunt for the Strangler. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the state, began work on January 17, 1964 to bring the serial killer to book. Pressure was on Brooke, the only African-American attorney general in the country, to succeed where others had failed. Brooke headed up a task force that included assigning permanent staff to the Boston Strangler case. He brought in Assistant Attorney General John Bottomly, who had a reputation for being unconventional.
Bottomly’s force had to sift through thousands of pages of material from different police forces. Police profiling was relatively new in the early 1960s, but they came up with what they thought was the most likely description of the killer. He was believed to be around thirty, neat and orderly, worked with his hands and was most likely a loner who may be divorced or separated. In fact, the killer ended up being found by chance, not by the work of the police force.
In the fall of 1964, in addition to the ‘Strangler’ murders, the police were also trying to solve a series of rapes committed by a man who had been dubbed the ‘Measuring Man’ or the ‘Green Man’. After a spell in prison for breaking and entering, DeSalvo went on to commit more serious crimes. Earlier on October 27, DeSalvo had posed as a motorist with car trouble and attempted to enter a home in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The owner of the home, future Brockton Police Chief Richard Sproles, became suspicious and ultimately fired a shotgun at DeSalvo. Later on the same day, a stranger entered a young woman’s home in East Cambridge posing as a detective. He tied his victim to her bed, proceeded to sexually assault her, and suddenly left, saying “I’m sorry” as he went.
The victim gave the police a good description, one that fitted his likeness sketch from his previous crimes. When his photo was published, many women identified him as the man who had assaulted them. Shortly afterwards DeSalvo was arrested. It was after he had been picked out of an identity parade that DeSalvo admitted to robbing hundreds of apartments and carrying out a couple of rapes.
Under arrest for his role in the ‘Green Man’ rapes, DeSalvo was not suspected of being involved with the murders. DeSalvo was sent to Bridgewater State Hospital to be assessed by psychiatrists. He was assigned an Attorney by the name of F. Lee Bailey. It was only after he was charged with rape did he give a detailed confession of his activities as the ‘Boston Strangler’, both under hypnosis induced by William Joseph Bryan and also without hypnosis during interviews with Assistant Attorney General John Bottomly.
When DeSalvo’s wife was told by Bailey that her husband had confessed to being the Strangler she couldn’t believe it and suggested he was doing it purely for payment from the newspapers. During his spell in Bridgewater, DeSalvo struck up a friendship with another inmate, an intelligent but highly dangerous killer called George Nassar. The two apparently had worked out a deal to split reward money that would go to anyone who supplied information to the identity of the Strangler. DeSalvo had accepted that he would be in prison for the rest of his life and wanted his family to be financially secure.
Bailey interviewed DeSalvo to discover if he really was the notorious killer. The attorney was shocked to hear DeSalvo describe the murders in incredible detail, right down to the furniture in the apartments of his victims. DeSalvo had it all worked out. He believed he could convince the psychiatric board that he was insane and then remain in prison for the rest of his life. Bailey could then write up his story and make much needed money to support his family. In his book “The Defense Never Rests”, Bailey explains how it was that DeSalvo managed to avoid detection. DeSalvo was Dr Jekyll; the police were looking for Mr. Hyde.
After a second visit and listening to DeSalvo describe in grisly detail the murder of 75-year-old Ida Irga, Bailey was convinced his client was the Boston Strangler. When he asked DeSalvo why he chose a victim of such an age, the man coolly replied that “attractiveness had nothing to do with it.” After many hours of questioning and going into minute detail of what the victims wore or how their apartments looked, both Bailey and the police were convinced that they had the killer. One disturbing revelation was when DeSalvo described an aborted attack on a Danish girl. As he was strangling her he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Horrified by the ghastly vision of what he was doing he released her and begged her not to tell the police before fleeing.
Though there were some inconsistencies, DeSalvo was able to cite details that had not been made public. However, there was no physical evidence to substantiate his confession. As such, he stood trial for earlier, unrelated crimes of robbery and sexual offenses. Bailey brought up the confession to the murders as part of his client’s history at the trial as part of an insanity defense, but it was ruled as inadmissible by the judge.
For his 1967 trial, DeSalvo’s mental state was evaluated by Dr. Harry Kozol, a neurologist who had established the first sex offender treatment center in Massachusetts. Bailey engaged a plea bargain to lock in his client’s guilt in exchange for taking the death penalty off of the table and also to preserve the possibility of an eventual insanity verdict. Bailey was angered by the jury’s decision to put DeSalvo in prison for life:
DeSalvo was sentenced to life in prison in 1967. In February of that year, he escaped with two fellow inmates from Bridgewater State Hospital, triggering a full-scale manhunt. A note was found on his bunk addressed to the superintendent. In it, DeSalvo stated he had escaped to focus attention on the conditions in the hospital and his own situation. Three days after the escape he called his lawyer to turn himself in. His lawyer then sent the police to re-arrest him in Lynn, Massachusetts. Following the escape, he was transferred to the maximum security prison known at the time as Walpole, where he later recanted his Strangler confessions.
On November 25, 1973, he got word to his doctor that he needed to see him urgently; DeSalvo had something important to say about the Boston Strangler murders. The night before they were to meet, however, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in prison. Because of the level of security in the prison, it is assumed that the killing had been planned with a degree of co-operation between employees and prisoners. Robert Wilson, who was associated with the Winter Hill Gang, was tried for DeSalvo’s murder but the trial ended in a hung jury – no one was ever convicted for his murder. F. Lee Bailey later claimed that DeSalvo was killed for selling amphetamines in the prison for less than the inmate-enforced syndicate price. Walpole inmates continue to say nothing about the crime and it today remains unsolved. Whatever the case, and though there were no more murders by the Strangler after DeSalvo had been arrested, the Strangler case was never closed.
DeSalvo’s papers are housed in the Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. His papers include his correspondence, mainly with the members of the Bailey family, and gifts sent to the Baileys of jewelery and leatherwork crafted by DeSalvo while in prison.
On July 11, 2013, Boston law enforcement officials announced that DNA evidence had linked DeSalvo to the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan. DeSalvo’s remains were exhumed, and the Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said he expected investigators to find an exact match when the evidence is compared with his DNA. On July 19, 2013, Suffolk County DA Daniel F. Conley, Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley and Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis announced that DNA test results proved DeSalvo was the source of seminal fluid recovered at the scene of Sullivan’s 1964 murder.
In 2000, Elaine Whitfield Sharp, an attorney specializing in forensic cases from Marblehead, Massachusetts, began representing the families of DeSalvo and of Mary A. Sullivan – a 19-year-old who was among the Strangler’s final victims in 1964 – both to clear DeSalvo’s name and to re-ignite efforts to find her real killer. A former print journalist, Sharp obtained court approval to exhume both Sullivan and DeSalvo for DNA testing, filed several court actions to obtain information and physical evidence from the government, and worked with various film producers to create documentaries so as to better educate the public. Through these efforts, Sharp was able to identify several inconsistencies between DeSalvo’s confessions and the crime scene evidence, casting even more doubts over DeSalvo’s identity as the ‘Boston Strangler’.
For example, contrary to DeSalvo’s statement that he first raped Sullivan, the forensic investigation revealed no evidence to support that claim. Also, he did not, as he claimed, strangle her with his bare hands; instead, she was strangled by ligature. Forensic pathologist Michael Baden noted that DeSalvo incorrectly stated the time of the victim’s death – a detail that DeSalvo got wrong in several of the murders, said Susan Kelly. More importantly still, James Starrs, professor of forensic science at George Washington University, told a news conference that a semen-like substance on her body did not match DeSalvo’s DNA and could not associate him with her murder.
The victim’s nephew, Casey Sherman, also wrote a book, “A Rose for Mary” (2003), in which he expanded upon the evidence – and leads from Kelly’s book – to conclude that DeSalvo could not be responsible for her death, and to try to determine her killer’s identity. Sharp continues to work on the case for the DeSalvo family. On July 11, 2013, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley stated that DNA testing had revealed a “familial match” between DeSalvo and forensic evidence in the Sullivan killing, leading authorities to request the exhumation of DeSalvo’s body in order to provide a definitive forensic link of DeSalvo to the murder of Mary Sullivan.
George Nassar, the inmate DeSalvo reportedly confessed to, is among the suspects in the case. He is currently serving a life sentence for the 1967 shooting death of an Andover, Massachusetts, gas station attendant. In 2008 and again in 2009, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court denied Nassar’s appeals of his 1967 conviction. In 2006, Nassar argued in court filings that he had been unable to make his case in a previous appeal, because he was in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, in the 1980s and therefore did not have access to Massachusetts legal resources. The court noted that Nassar had returned to Massachusetts in 1983, yet he did not plead his case for more than two decades. Nassar also filed a motion for a new trial in Essex County, which was denied, as was his 2011 petition to the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.