Over the course of 18 months in the idealistic early 1960s, 13 Boston-area women were strangled and sexually assaulted. The elusive killer left behind a grotesque, ritualized crime scene, as if taunting the people who would come across it. Bodies were left in suggestive positions. Nylon stockings or other pieces of personal clothing were tied around their necks. Some had bottles, broomsticks, or other foreign objects sticking out of their bodies. At the foot of the last victim, who was strangled on January 4, 1964, was a cheerful greeting card that read “Happy New Year!”.
The so-called Boston Strangler terrorized a city and fascinated a nation, including my grandfather Gerold Frank, an author and journalist who traveled to Boston and became the only writer embedded in the state task force overseeing America’s largest manhunt yet. His bestseller about this hunt, The Boston Strangler, was adapted into a 1968 film starring Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda, spurring a veritable crime industry of great staying power.
On March 17, Hulu premiered the latest addition to the oeuvre with Boston Strangler, starring Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as two groundbreaking reporters who will break history and pound the pavement until the truth emerges and achieves a measure of justice becomes.
Gerold has interviewed all the key figures in the investigation, including reporter Loretta McLaughlin and the Keira Knightley character, over the three years that he has covered the case. And his seat in the front row of history tells a story that differs in important respects from the one that hit the big screen this week.
Written and directed by Matt Ruskin (Crown Heights), the Hulu film stars McLaughlin as a lone seeker of truth who stands against a wall of obstacles, mostly men who are more interested in power and profit than learning the truth or seeking justice . McLaughlin and her colleague Jean Cole (played by Coon) must push the investigators to get their job done. Through their persistent reporting, they identify a prime suspect, a handyman named Albert DeSalvo, whom police in their incompetence assumed was behind bars during the killing spree and could not be the culprit. Because of the women’s persistence, the state eventually takes over the hunt for the man or men responsible for the Boston women’s siege.
In the latter half of the film, having almost single-handedly brought the investigation to life, McLaughlin begins to doubt that there was only one killer. A witness does not identify DeSalvo but his cellmate George Nassar as being at the scene, and a conspiracy theory is born: the inmates study press reports detailing the crimes and conspire to pin the constrictors on DeSalvo so the men can split them to get reward money for solving the crimes . DeSalvo makes a false confession and is briefed on the murder details by an investigator who is desperate to close the case. DeSalvo’s attorney, the infamous OJ Simpson’s F. Lee Bailey, keeps the confession out of court while securing a book deal that would make DeSalvo a fortune (and the enormous attorney’s fees). And police and state officials, shielded by male newspaper editors, declare victory to a city desperate to move on, basking in the glory of having rescued Boston’s women from a reign of terror.
“You all created a myth,” Nassar tells McLaughlin, who finally gets tapes confirming in the film that the confessions were trained. People wanted to believe it was DeSalvo, he explains, because the alternative was too unsettling — that there are a lot of DeSalvos out there, “and your safe little world is just an illusion.” An “s” is added to a heading at the end to indicate the new consensus that there are multiple “Boston Stranglers”.
The film’s message is clear: As McLaughlin says, “No one bothered to find out the truth, and people got away with murder.” Men, especially, sought political, personal, and financial gain before committing themselves to the views or ensured the safety of women.
The problem is that the real McLaughlin never believed in the conspiracy story the film portrays, particularly the notion that there were multiple killers. (The film says it was “inspired” by real events, although an earlier script said it was “based on a true story,” and press material still calls it that.) In 1965, mid-hunt, she told mine Grandfather that it went against logic that there would be several psychopaths walking around Boston strangling women and arranging crime scenes in similar, grotesque patterns. She reiterated her belief in a single killer in a 1992 op-ed, and said of the 13 murders in a 2005 interview that “the killer, I’m convinced, was Albert DeSalvo, no question.”
The film’s timeline is condensed, a sensible surrender to the demands of cinema, but one that also facilitates the fictionalization of key storylines. In reality, McLaughlin had left the paper when DeSalvo became a suspect. In fact, it wasn’t until 1966 that DeSalvo was publicly credited as the Strangler, when my grandfather printed the link in his book. (He was the only one to get a release from DeSalvo that allowed him to do this, the so-called book deal that F. Lee Bailey got for DeSalvo.) This was nearly three years after the strangleholds ended. It was not McLaughlin but reportedly a detective who determined that DeSalvo was not in prison during the murders and was therefore a viable suspect. In other words, she didn’t crack the case.
McLaughlin’s actual story is quite remarkable. She was an intrepid and deeply empathetic reporter who broke barriers in an often all-male newsroom that referred to every woman who crossed the threshold as a “girl.” She convinced her male editors to let her investigate a series of murders that many initially failed to notice or dismissed as stories about “nobody.” And she played a key role in moving this investigation forward. (She died in 2018.)
So why does the film have to turn her into a conspiracy theorist and credit her for doings that weren’t hers and didn’t have to be in order for her to be a great heroine?
The film is a fun watch, especially the second half when a routine procedure turns into a conspiracy thriller. And to be fair, the reality of this case is that the theory of multiple killers being glossed over by a huge cover-up has been with us since the strangleholds began, and not without reason. DeSalvo was never tried for the murders, in large part because Bailey kept his confession from being admitted. He was stabbed to death in prison in 1973, shortly after he had suggested in a letter that his confession might have been false, which of course led to further conspiracies that DeSalvo was not the killer and part of the cover-up.
Although DeSalvo was never convicted of the murders, the evidence that he was the strangler is overwhelming. His confession, which my grandfather was the only journalist to hear at the time it was made, covered extensive crime details that no one else could have known. (Many have focused on the details he got wrong, but he is believed to have raped hundreds of women in their homes, and what amazed investigators wasn’t how much he didn’t remember, but how much he did.) Several witnesses placed him on the sites of the murders. And in a 2013 development that should have dispelled doubts, new DNA evidence made possible by advances in testing technology finally confirmed the link between DeSalvo and the latest victim, whose family had most actively questioned whether DeSalvo was responsible was. The best evidence we all have points to DeSalvo.
So why does the conspiracy theory live on, evidence and logic be damned?
The usual sociological interpretation of the appeal of conspiracy thinking is that it gives people clear, simple answers and a sense of control and moral justice in a world that is actually multifaceted, complex, and vague. This analysis has value. The film adaptation of McLaughlin is a composite character, a sponge for a male conspiracy fantasy, albeit one with a #MeToo bent. The film clothes her with views she didn’t have in the service of a plot that feeds the need to go to good women (who bother to find out the truth) and bad men (who only care about power and profit). believe. It then uses them as a vehicle to spin out a hackneyed Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory with a shadowy cover-up at its core.
Yet the actual truth, as Nassar says in the film, is more troubling: There are many DeSalvos out there, as evidenced by the rise in mass shootings, the mental health crisis, and the futility of allowing violence to permeate more and more areas of our lives. The films invite us to immerse ourselves in grand stories, in delusions of safety, heroism and redemption. But when the screen goes dark, we must reckon with reality: we live in a violent, disorienting time with no easy answers or safe havens, and with a persistent imperative to seek out the truth, whether it entertains, comforts, or disturbs us .