Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Boston Strangler

Doubts: The Confession

One of the key issues that Kelly addresses — with mixed success — is the accuracy of the voluminous confession and its myriad of details, some of which were correct and some of which were not. How did Albert DeSalvo, a man of average or less than average intelligence convincingly absorb so many, many details about the victims and their apartments if he was not the Strangler?

Kelly points out that Albert had an exceptional memory. Dr. Robey testified that he had "absolute, complete, one hundred per percent total photographic recall." One of his lawyers. Jon Asgeirsson noted that "Albert had a phenomenal memory. Another of his lawyers, Tom Troy agreed, "It was remarkable."

Robey cites an example of how he tested Albert's ability to make instantaneous mental carbon copies of people, places, things: "We had a staff meeting [at Bridgewater] with about eight people. Albert walked in and walked out. The next day we had him brought back in. Everyone had on different clothes, was sitting in different positions. I said, "Albert, you remember coming in yesterday? Describe it."

Albert did, perfectly (Kelly)

She also cites a number of sources of information available to Albert to learn what he did about the crimes:

  1. The newspaper accounts were extraordinarily detailed. The Record American printed up a chart, along with the victims' photos, called "The Facts: On Reporters' Strangle Worksheet." This chart was a summary of all the important details of each crime, what victims were wearing, their hobbies, affiliations, etc. Kelly says, "That DeSalvo had memorized this chart is apparent because in his confession to John Bottomly, he regurgitated not only the correct data on it but the few pieces of misinformation it contained as well.
  2. Leaks by law enforcement agencies, particularly the Strangler Bureau, which was criticized for being lax with its accumulated material, and the Suffolk County Medical Examiner, who allegedly held a number of unauthorized press conferences in which he freely distributed information about the victim autopsies.
  3. Albert's own research as a burglar put him in many of the apartment buildings in which women were murdered. He knew the layouts of the apartments and, according to Kelly, had visited each apartment after the murder.
  4. Information deliberately and inadvertently fed to him by people anxious to wrap up the investigation, such as John Bottomly, who, according to Kelly, "did knowingly and quite intentionally provide Albert with information about the murders —while he was taking the latter's confession to them...which explains why the only version of it [the confession] ever made public was abbreviated and heavily doctored. The full version virtually exonerates DeSalvo."
  5. Possible information provided by another suspect who could have coached DeSalvo on the details. Police speculated that George Nassar could have been one such source of information.

Finally, experts never saw the stranglings as the work of one individual. The modi operandi were not identical and the victims as a group were quite dissimilar. Kelly summarizes some of the more obvious differences:

No similarity whatsoever exists between the relatively delicate killing of Patricia Bissette, whose murderer tucked her into bed, and the ghastly homicidal violation inflicted on Mary Sullivan, whose killer's intent was not just to degrade his victim by shoving a broom handle into her vagina but to taunt the discoverer of her corpse by placing a greeting card against her foot. Beverly Samans was stabbed but not sexually assaulted; Joann Graff was raped vaginally and strangled. Evelyn Corbin had performed — probably under duress — oral sex on her killer. Jane Sullivan was dumped facedown to rot in a bathtub. Ida Irga was left in the living room with her legs spread out and propped up on a chair.

Serial killers tend to select and stick with a particular kind of victim. For example, Jack the Ripper picked prostitutes; Ted Bundy picked pretty, longhaired young girls; Jeff Dahmer young boys, etc. The strangling victims represent a wide disparity in age and attractiveness and race which flies in the face of serial killer profiling expertise. A very likely explanation is that some of the crimes were committed by one individual, especially the murders of Ida Irga, Jane Sullivan and Helen Blake.

And what about Mary Mullen, the elderly woman who died of a heart attack? Kelly says that this may be the only killing of which DeSalvo is guilty. He probably burglarized her apartment and she died of fright. Did the same Albert DeSalvo who carried his unintended victim over to her couch and fled without stealing anything savage the bodies of Ida Irga and Jane Sullivan?

The Mary Brown affair raised some interesting questions. She had been raped, strangled and beaten to death in Lawrence in early March of 1963. Albert's confession to this crime was very sketchy and many of the details were incorrect. Perhaps, Albert had been told about this crime from the Bridgewater inmate who was really responsible. Kelly says Mary Brown lived on the same street as the man that George Nassar shot to death in 1948.


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