The Mad Strangler of Boston

Eleven women have been murdered by strangulation in metropolitan Boston since the summer of 1962, and none of these cases has been solved as this issue goes to press. Erle Stanley Gardner is a distinguished criminologist, lawyer, and authority on police work, in addition to being the creator of one of the most widely read fictional characters in the English language, Perry Mason. The Atlantic invited Mr. Gardner to come to Boston and set down his own impressions of this extraordinary series of crimes.

The summons to come to Boston and investigate the series of murders committed by the Mad Strangler reached me when I was camped east of Phoenix, Arizona, on the Quarter Circle U Ranch.

I had gone into the Superstition Mountains to get material for an article on the famous Lost Dutchman Mine. We had quite an expedition, using helicopters and a battery of cameras to make an aerial survey of the country, then following up with horseback explorations on the ground. But, such is the pace of modern times that in a matter of hours the clear blue sky, the weird saguaros, the towering cliffs of the Superstition Mountains with their legend of lost mines had faded astern, and we were in the city of Boston, with its historical background and, more recently, its history of unsolved murders.

Yet this very hectic pace of life is one of the underlying causes of so many of our crimes. There are people who simply cannot adjust themselves to the new freedoms and the new stresses. They become misfits. Some of them are inept misfits; some are pathetic; some are dangerous misfits. Today we have the Mad Strangler of Boston. Yesterday we had the Mad Bomber in New York. Tomorrow we may have a Mad Murderer in your town or in mine.

From June, 1962, to January, 1964, Boston and its suburbs had eleven somewhat similar stranglings. Police are not at all certain those stranglings were the work of one man; but until they catch the culprit and, if possible, obtain a confession, they cannot be positive.

The unknown always holds a certain element of terror, and because so much about the Strangler is completely unknown, and because what is known is so bizarre, he has had a far-reaching effect on the city.

We reached Logan Airport late at night, and on the way to the hotel the taxi driver talked about the Strangler, beginning with what many people hold to be a key clue in the case. All of the victims, the driver asserted, had had some connection with hospitals, and, as we learned from subsequent investigation, this is true in a majority of the cases. However, this so-called clue may well be coincidental. Many mature working people have had some connection with a hospital, either as a patient, a nurse, or in the culinary department. It is impossible to reveal everything that the police know, but the bare facts are terrifying.

1. The Strangler's victims are all women.

2. The Strangler does not pick locks; he does not break windows: apparently he is let in by the victims themselves. This in itself is utterly incongruous.

One can easily accept the idea that a man may claim to be a salesman, repairman, or delivery boy. But after the first two or three deaths had been publicized, why would any woman let a stranger into her apartment, no matter what the excuse?

Yet the Strangler continues his mysterious and sinister visits. Despite the warnings, despite all of the publicity in the press, despite the fact that many of the women who are living alone in Boston are now armed with tear-gas guns, safety devices on the doors, and have a firm determination not to open the door to any stranger, the Strangler enters, perpetrates his crime, and vanishes.

3. The crimes, for the most part, seem to occur in broad daylight. Thus, either the victim in good faith lets the Strangler into the apartment she is occupying, or he has entered the apartment before she gets home and has concealed himself, awaiting her return. The bulk of the evidence would seem to indicate that the woman voluntarily admits the man to her apartment.

4. There is never any sign of a struggle.

Hours, or perhaps days, later the police have found the woman's body, her legs spread at a wide angle, parts of the clothing ripped off, a ligature around the neck. The ligature is usually made from a nylon stocking belonging to the woman or one of her roommates, and sometimes there is a second ligature, consisting of one of the woman's garments knotted over the first ligature. The second garment may be loose, although the knots are neat, workmanlike knots, pulled so tightly that they indicate either great strength or a perfect frenzy of emotion. Yet in no case has anyone heard the sound of screams; there is no evidence that the woman has fought with her assailant.

How can this be?

A woman would hardly admit a stranger to her apartment, then turn her back while he looked through her bureau drawers, searching for a stocking. She would certainly scream when she saw the man approaching her with evidently homicidal intentions. She would try to keep a table or a chair between her and her assailant. She would fight and claw. She would bite and kick. But the victims have done none of these things. They have submitted to murder as meekly as though they had been hypnotized and told that the fatal stocking which was being placed around their necks was actually a pearl necklace.

These murders by strangulation may be summarized as follows:

Date

Victim

Status

Weapon

6/14/62 Mrs. Anna E. Slesers
77 Gainsborough St.
Boston—Age 55

Seamstress and
divorcée, living
alone
Cord from own
housecoat
6/30/62 Mrs. Nina G. Nichols
1940 Commonwealth Ave.
Brighton—Age 68

Semiretired
physiotherapist,
living alone
Nylon stocking
6/30/62 Miss Helen E. Blake
73 Newhall St.
Lynn—Age 65

Registered nurse,
living alone
Nylon stocking
and bra
7/11/62 Mrs Margaret Davis
139 Blue Hill Ave.
Roxbury—Age 60

Widow,
living alone
Forceful strangu-
lation without
ligature
8/19/62 Mrs. Ida Irga
7 Grove St.
Boston—Age 75

Widow, living
alone
Pillowcase
8/20/62 Miss Jane Sullivan
435 Columbia Rd.
Dorchester—Age 67

Practical nurse,
living alone
Nylon stockings
12/5/62 Miss Sophie Clark
315 Huntington Ave.
Boston—Age 21

Student, living
with two other
students
Nylon stocking
and petticoat
12/31/62 Miss Patricia Bissette
515 Park Dr.
Boston—Age 24

Secretary,
living alone
Nylon stockings
and blouse
9/8/63 Mrs. Evelyn Corbin
224 Lafayette St.
Salem—Age 50

Divorcée,
living alone
Two nylon
stockings
11/24/63 Miss Joan Graff
Essex St.
Lawrence—Age 23

Designer,
living alone
Nylon stocking
1/4/64 Miss Mary Sullivan
44 Charles St.
Boston—Age 20

Secretary, living
with two girl
friends
Nylon stocking
and two scarves

Massachusetts maintains a system of medical examiners, a system which has sent many murderers to the chair who would have escaped scot-free if it had not been for these shrewd, well-trained officials. And some innocent persons could well have been sentenced to death if investigations by the medical examiner had not shown that death was either suicidal or brought about by natural causes. Under the system as it is practiced in Boston, the medical examiner is immediately called to the scene of the murder; nothing is touched by anyone until he has completed his investigation and has signified that the body may be removed.

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