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Flashbacks: "Unsolved Mysteries" (July 31, 2002)
Two Atlantic articles written nearly a century apart testify to our ongoing fascination with unsolved crimes.
Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.
Crime Library: The Boston Strangler
A step-by-step account of the controversy continuing to this day surrounding the thirteen women who were murdered between 1962 and 1964, and their convicted killer, Albert DeSalvo.
Books about the Boston Strangler Case
The Boston Stranglers (1995)
By Susan Kelly, Carol Publishing Group. Kelly argues that there were two—and perhaps many more—"copycat" murderers, and that Albert DeSalvo was not one of them.
Defense Never Rests (1995)
By F. Lee Bailey, New American Library. Bailey, Albert DeSalvo's attorney, devotes several chapters of this book that chronicles his career to the Strangler case. He believes that DeSalvo was indeed the Strangler.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 1964
he 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.
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.
by Erle Stanley Gardner
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.
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.
|These murders by strangulation may be summarized as follows:
||Mrs. Anna E. Slesers
77 Gainsborough St.
|Cord from own
||Mrs. Nina G. Nichols
1940 Commonwealth Ave.
||Miss Helen E. Blake
73 Newhall St.
||Mrs Margaret Davis
139 Blue Hill Ave.
||Mrs. Ida Irga
7 Grove St.
||Miss Jane Sullivan
435 Columbia Rd.
||Miss Sophie Clark
315 Huntington Ave.
with two other
||Miss Patricia Bissette
515 Park Dr.
||Mrs. Evelyn Corbin
224 Lafayette St.
||Miss Joan Graff
||Miss Mary Sullivan
44 Charles St.
with two girl
and two scarves
Dr. Richard Ford is one of the examiners who had jurisdiction over some of the Strangler's crimes. Dr. Michael Luongo has had jurisdiction over the others. Both are longtime friends of mine. I first met them some years ago when I was enrolled as a pupil in a seminar on homicide investigation sponsored by the late Mrs. Frances G. Lee, who was an honorary captain in the New Hampshire state police force. She endowed the chair of forensic medicine at the Harvard Medical School. (I am probably the one person not officially connected with some police department who was ever permitted to take the course.) Doctors Ford and Luongo were among the instructors. My acquaintance with Dr. Ford in particular has ripened into a close friendship. He and his wife have visited my ranch in California; I have frequently visited with them at their home in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.
A highly trained expert, specializing in legal medicine and forensic pathology, enjoying an international reputation, Dr. Ford has not only a background of extensive experience but also a natural talent for his work, a talent amounting to genius. Many times he has made statements at the scene of a crime which have been questioned by others, yet almost invariably, in the light of subsequent events, his conclusions have been proved correct.
Dr. Ford is, moreover, an expert photographer, and when he moves in on a case, the first thing he does is to set up a battery of lights, and then he makes colorslides from several positions so that each detail can be perpetuated on film. In the course of years, this collection of colorslides, a veritable pictorial encyclopedia of different forms of violent death, has attracted international attention.
The murder of Sophie Clark (victim number 7) occurred in Dr. Ford's jurisdiction. He covered the case, and I was privileged to spend an evening with him at his home, during which time we carefully reviewed the evidence. That murder took place in broad daylight, between two thirty and four thirty in the afternoon. Three girls were living in the apartment. There was a hallway connecting two bedrooms, and a living room which Miss Clark had converted into her own room. Miss Clark had entered the apartment and apparently had taken off her outer garments and put on her robe. She had evidently been there for some time before the murder.
When the police found her body, she was lying with her legs stretched out and spread wide apart; her legs were encased in nylon stockings held in place by a garter belt; her bra had been torn off, apparently by the use of considerable force, and her undergarments had been removed, but she was still wearing the robe, which had slipped from one shoulder and partially from the other. The body was lying on its back. She had been strangled with a nylon stocking which had been tied around her neck. Over this nylon stocking, knotted tightly but with enough slack so that it could hardly have been used as a ligature, was her petticoat. Apparently the nylon stocking had been taken from a drawer in a bedroom occupied by one of the other girls. Some of the things about the body were in disarray, but there was no sign of a struggle.
By itself, the murder of Sophie Clark is a baffling case. As a part of a series of similar murders, it presents problems which stagger the imagination. In the first place, while dressed only in a robe and undergarments, would Miss Clark have admitted a stranger to the apartment? She had been the first of the occupants of the apartment to return home that afternoon. A more likely possibility is, of course, that the Strangler was already in the apartment and was engaged in looking through the rooms of one of the other young women when he heard Miss Clark coming in. Under those circumstances he would have kept quiet until an opportunity for attack presented itself.
But if this had been the case, the Strangler must have entered the apartment shortly before the arrival of Miss Clark, because there was no sign of any articles having been disturbed in the other rooms—only the one drawer containing nylon stockings which was left open.
Since Miss Clark had evidently been in her room long enough to change her clothes before she was attacked, then the Strangler could conceivably have been in another room for some time before the attack if he had preceded Miss Clark into the apartment.
But during that time the Strangler had apparently disturbed only one thing in those rooms: the drawer containing the stockings. He would hardly have made his search of the apartment looking for the stocking, the murder weapon, after Miss Clark had entered the apartment. Unless she was unconscious, she would have heard him moving around and opening drawers. She might have fancied the noise was being made by one of the young women who lived in the other rooms, but considering the early hour in the afternoon, this is unlikely. These things are interesting fields of speculation because that open drawer may be one of the best clues we have.
Does the Strangler select his victim in advance, then keep her or her apartment under surveillance until the opportunity for murder? Or does he choose his victim when he finds himself confronted with just the right chance for murder?
If he chooses his victim in advance—perhaps because of some connection with a hidden pattern, perhaps because of some real or fancied grudge, perhaps because of some other reason—and goes to her apartment for the sole purpose of committing murder, he may or may not carry the murder weapon with him. Doing so would expedite his actions, but the presence of a nylon stocking in a man's pocket would be difficult to explain should he be picked up by the police for questioning while he was studying the lay of the land. The indications are that rather than run the risk of being apprehended with incriminating evidence on him, the Strangler prefers to "play it by ear," so to speak, choosing his victims as opportunity presents itself.
But in that case, how would the Strangler go about getting his weapon? Quite obviously, the best way would be to strip off one of the victim's own stockings, but apparently this has not been done. It was certainly not done in the Sophie Clark case. In fact, the way the legs were arranged, it would almost seem as if the murderer derived some sensual satisfaction from regarding the legs neatly encased in stockings.
It is a well-known fact that criminals establish certain habits in connection with their methods of committing crimes. In investigating a series of crimes, the police always endeavor right at the start to identify recurring patterns. These are carefully tabulated in a file known as M.O. (modus operandi). So, here, in the Sophie Clark case, we have a very valuable clue as to the modus operandi.
We pick up another in the second case—that of Mrs. Nina G. Nichols. That murder took place at approximately four o'clock in the afternoon, and because of fortuitous circumstances which could hardly have been anticipated by the Strangler, police were able to get almost the exact time of the murder and a clue as to the method by which the Strangler gains admission to the apartments of his victims.
A few minutes before her death, Mrs. Nichols had been talking on the telephone with her sister. In the midst of the telephone call, she said, in effect, "Excuse me a moment, my doorbell is ringing. I'll call you back in just a few minutes."
Mrs. Nichols did not call back within a few minutes as promised. The sister became alarmed, asked the superintendent of the building to check, and he found Mrs. Nichols' body at seven thirty.
Now, this is a most valuable clue as to the modus operandi of the Strangler. He is on occasion a person who rings doorbells and, with some plausible story, is admitted to the apartment. But after the first few cases, with the widespread notoriety which was attached to them, he must have become more guarded. Women with whom we talked after we came to Boston were emphatic in their statements that they would not open their doors to anyone, no matter what his story might be, and this seemed to be a quite general feeling.
Has the Strangler tried repeatedly to gain entrance to apartments, only to be rebuffed? For if so, it would seem that women would report such suspicious circumstances to the police.
et us take a look at what the Boston police have been called upon to do in connection with the Mad Strangler. Their first assignment was to find out everything they could about the victims: personal habits, background, list of acquaintances. They had to explore telephone numbers which had been called or written in notebooks. They had to look for diaries; they had to study the personal effects, in order to learn what they could about the habits and temperaments of the victims. Then they had to talk with acquaintances of the victims, to discover who composed the complete circle of friends and acquaintances. This in itself is a considerable task.
Then the police had to take many fingerprints, all latents which were found at the scene of the crime; and they had to compare those fingerprints with latent prints found at the scenes of other crimes. Furthermore, they had to correlate the names of all acquaintances of the victim with the names of acquaintances of other victims. In addition, they had to start running down all persons who had recently been released from institutions who had a history of sex crimes and who were living in the vicinity of the crimes.
In the course of these routines the police investigated six thousand persons. Each one had to be "checked." Checking an individual is a tedious process. He has to be interviewed unless he can be eliminated as a suspect because of some definite factor; then it is necessary to find out where he was at the dates of the crimes and analyze his alibis carefully.
All this time, the police telephones are ringing: calls are coming in from those who have theories, from those who have noticed someone looking at a window as though sizing up an apartment, from those made suspicious about any one of a hundred things that arouse the suspicions of the passerby. More assertive are the theorists, persons who call up and say, "I can't tell you how I know, but I am certain that this murder was committed by someone disguised as a policeman" or "someone disguised as a priest." Occasionally these things have an element of humor. For instance, the police had several leads to a mysterious individual whom we shall call Mr. X. Mr. X seemingly made a habit of calling up attractive young women, addressing them by name, and beginning a conversation which ran something like this: "You probably don't remember me offhand, but I met you at such and such a party and you made a tremendous impression on me. I keep thinking about you. I made it a point to find out your address, and I'm telephoning to tell you that I'd like very much to see you again."
Mr. X might be a little vague about just where they had met, but very positive about the impression the girl had made upon him. He appeared to be a man of considerable means and social position; he had a cultivated, agreeable voice, and, as it turned out, quite frequently young women would be persuaded to let him call. Mr. X proved to have an attractive personality and an insinuating manner, and it is not surprising that his visits ripened into friendships and some of those friendships ripened into intimacies.
In retrospect some of the young women realized that they had fallen for a very clever line and that actually they had never met Mr. X on the occasion he had mentioned. In view of the strangling cases reported in the press, the more conscientious of the young women sacrificed their privacy and reported to the police what had happened. The police, of course, take every precaution to keep their names from becoming known.
So the police started out looking for Mr. X, and that was one whale of a job. For a time he seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth. The girls who knew him, knew him as Mr. X, which, as it turned out, was a false name, as were his credentials. But eventually the police caught up with him. As one might suspect, he was simply a man with considerable ability as a salesman, a good deal of nerve and ingenuity—and a desire for female society. The police were astounded by the number of names and addresses in his "little black book."
hese are all part of the routine chores which the police have to perform in their search for the Strangler. In each case the police interrogate neighbors of the slain woman to determine whether any stranger has been seen in the vicinity, or whether anyone has been loitering around taking an undue interest in the apartment, and if so, they try to run down the identity of that man. The skill developed by the police in screening and fitting together such clues is impressive. A great many man-hours are devoted to such details.
It was natural that in the course of our interviews we ran across those who questioned the efficiency of the police department and backed up their criticism with specific instances. As one executive put it, "If you go to bed smoking a cigarette, fall asleep, and the bedclothes catch fire, you'll have a million dollars' worth of fire equipment parked in front of the building before you can snap your fingers. But if you see a prowler and telephone the police, it may be quite a while before they get there."
In fact, we found several people who had reported prowlers or Peeping Toms, only to have the police delay responding to the call until the culprit had made good his escape. One man reported seeing a potential car thief smashing the glass in the window of a locked automobile. The man knew he had been observed and ran away. The observer who told us about this insisted that it was nearly fifteen minutes before the police arrived. However, it must be remembered that under such circumstances, unless a person consults a watch, every minute seems like ten. It should also be realized that the police receive nearly one thousand calls a day! Boston police received more than 353,000 in 1963, with cars being dispatched in response.
We went to communications headquarters and asked to see statistics on the time it took to answer calls. On the whole we were favorably impressed. When we inspected the records to find out how telephone calls were handled, we discovered that apparently the service was excellent. The defect, as, far as the records are concerned, is that the cards show when the call was received and the car sent out, and they give the time when the case was "cleared." The records do not show when the car arrived at the scene, although when a case is cleared quickly there has obviously been no delay.
Boston, it should be remembered, has peculiar problems of its own. Many of the old streets are crooked and narrow; and in certain sections a Peeping Tom could lose himself almost within a matter of seconds. Boston is a very old metropolis surrounded by many self-contained communities, each with its separate local government and police. Each is jealous of its own prerogatives, and this can lead to confusion and delay. It is perhaps this environment which has enabled Boston's Mad Strangler to go so long without being detected.
In defense of the police, it must be acknowledged that other cities have been similarly victimized by deranged, sadistic, but clever perverts.
In the 1940s the "Dark Strangler," Earle Nelson, killed more than twenty-two women before he was finally apprehended. In many ways, those stranglings have much in common with the Boston murders, and the cases should be compared by the police. Nelson started out strangling and raping women who were in their sixties. Later on in his career, he included some younger women notably one fourteen-year-old girl. In some instances, the details of the murders were so horrible that they were not publicized. Nelson operated in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Barbara; Portland, Oregon; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City; Buffalo; and Chicago; and then, finally, he crossed into Canada, which was where he made his major mistake. For, eventually, he was apprehended by the Canadian authorities, tried, convicted, and executed.
Nelson was a miserable specimen of humanity. At an early age he had been seriously injured in an accident which rendered him unconscious for nearly a week. He had been committed to various asylums and had escaped. It was a pity that he was not confined for life.
Peter Kürten of Düsseldorf is more interesting because psychologists had a chance to study his mentality, thanks to his willing cooperation after his arrest. Much of the delay in apprehending Kürten was due to the fact that during the period of his greatest activities, Kürten was married to a woman who adored him, and to all appearances he adored her. However, as it turned out, Kürten could only have normal relations with his wife while visualizing scenes of the greatest sadistic cruelty. Afterward he would go out and commit murder.
It is significant that Kürten committed his first sexual murder on May 25, 1913, but was not apprehended for sixteen years, until the latter part of May of 1929. During this time Kürten committed many murders, and for a period of two years he had the city of Düsseldorf in a state of complete terror. In a period of fifteen months, during the latter part of Kürten's reign of terror, thirteen thousand letters were sent to the Düsseldorf police and nine thousand people were interviewed.
It is also interesting to note that the story of one girl who had been assaulted and then thrown into the river, but who had subsequently recovered consciousness and worked her way ashore, was so bizarre that not only was her story discredited by the police, but a fine was levied against her for making a false report to the authorities.
One particularly significant thing about the Kürten case is the fact that not only did he derive satisfaction from sadism, but he derived further satisfaction from mingling with the horror-stricken spectators when his crimes were discovered and listening to the reactions of bystanders. The killer wherever possible made it a part of his plan of operation to be on hand immediately after the discovery of the body of his outraged victim.
So courteous and soft-spoken was Kürten that even after his arrest and confession, people simply refused to believe it possible that he could be the "Monster" who had been terrorizing the city.
On one occasion when a man had accosted a woman in public, rather rudely insisting on forcing his attentions upon her, Kürten had come to the rescue, and the woman so trusted this courteous stranger that she actually accompanied him to his home, where he gave her a glass of milk and refreshments, acting the part of a perfect gentleman. Later he, took her into a secluded woodland area and suddenly started to choke her. Before he had quite killed her, he asked her if she remembered where he lived. Upon being assured that she did not, he spared her life.
This woman told her story to a friend, who in turn reported it to the police. Authorities helped the woman locate the house; Kürten was apprehended and confessed, first to his incredulous wife, later to the police, that he was indeed the "Monster." Before his execution Kürten's cooperation and the interest which he himself seemed to have in the psychological aspects of his case told more about the motivations of this type of pervert than we have had from any other source.
dward W. Brooke, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, entered the Boston cases purely, as he expressed it, for the purpose of coordinating police activities. It was about this time that we arrived on the scene, and there seemed to be a question in the minds of the Boston police as to just what was meant by "coordination"—at least, if one might judge from the newspaper headlines.
Attorney General Brooke is a highly articulate individual, and there certainly can be no doubt of his sincerity. As he expressed it to us, he does not care in the least who gets the credit for capturing the Mad Strangler of Boston, just so long as the Strangler is apprehended.
Peter Hurkos was called in to assist the authorities by the use of extrasensory perception, at the request of private citizens who volunteered to pay the expenses. It is doubtful that Hurkos would have been permitted to work on the cases unless he had the tacit approval of the Attorney General, who presumably felt that the Commonwealth had much to gain and nothing to lose. Hurkos did some remarkable things. He told a police officer about his ailing mother and described her illness in detail. He told one officer that something was wrong with his child's throat and that he should telephone home immediately. The officer did so, only to learn that his small daughter had just swallowed a safety pin. And he swept through a series of demonstrations in telepathy, extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, or whatever one cares to call it, a force which he admits he does not fully understand.
Then he turned his attention to the murders. He was shown photographs, the physical evidence, and taken to the scene of at least one of the crimes. He had little hesitancy in declaring that all eleven of the murders were the work of one strangler.
There are those in police circles who doubt that this is the case. They feel almost certain that one of the murders at least, a typical sordid hotel sex slaying, is removed from the pattern of the other murders and was perpetrated by someone other than the Mad Strangler. Many veteran officers feel there is one other case, or perhaps two, in which the Mad Strangler is not the murderer.
Eventually Hurkos, gave the police information which apparently led to taking one suspect into custody. The newspapers stated that this man, described as a woman hater, had been under surveillance for some time. He is quite evidently mentally deranged; it was reported that he would be unable to stand trial for his crimes and would have to be committed to an institution.
The Attorney General uses carefully chosen words to describe the talents of Peter Hurkos. In a prepared statement released by the Attorney General, his gift was called "psychometry." Some red-faced police officer may well find himself on the witness stand and called upon to answer some such question as "Oh, so you first took my client into custody and now want to send him to the electric chair on the strength of a vision by some twentieth-century witch doctor, Is that right?"
Courts are generally ultraconservative. They have, for the most part, refused to allow evidence of the polygraph, or lie detector, on the ground that it is not infallible and is, so far, only an aid to investigation. What will happen when they are confronted with psychometry?
It is, of course, a temptation under times of stress to resort to anything which will clarify the situation, but it must also be remembered that the very methods which may result in finding a suspect may tend to present an obstacle to his conviction.
Not all sadistic killers are mentally deranged; perhaps it would be better to say that not all show evidence of mental derangement that can easily be detected.
Take the case of John Christie, for instance, who shared a London residence in 1953 with one Timothy Evans, Mrs. Beryl Evans, and a young daughter. The bodies of Mrs. Evans and her daughter were found on the premises, and suspicion was directed to Evans, who was placed on trial. Christie appeared as a witness for the prosecution, and despite the fact that Evans' counsel tried to blame the murders on Christie, Evans was convicted and hanged. To all appearances Christie was a public-minded citizen reluctantly doing his duty.
Some time after Evans had been executed, Christie left the premises, and a new tenant, wishing to put in a shelf to support a radio, started sounding the walls to find out where the studs were. He came on what was apparently a vacant space which had been simply covered over with wallpaper. He broke open the wallpaper, looked inside, and saw the body of a woman. He notified the authorities.
The woman's body was almost perfectly preserved, and was in a small passage where the circulation of air was such that there had been virtually no odor. She was only partially clothed, but her legs were encased neatly in stockings held in place by a garter belt.
The removal of Body Number 1 by the authorities exposed a tall object wrapped in a blanket, which proved to be the legs of Body Number 2, propped up against the wall. Removal of Body Number 2 disclosed Body Number 3. Then, Body Number 4 was discovered under the floorboards in the front room, and portions of the skeletons of at least two more persons were found in the backyard.
Christie was tried, convicted, and executed.
British authorities profess to believe that Evans was actually guilty of the murder of his daughter, although Christie confessed the murder of Evans' wife prior to his execution. Naturally, the British do not like to think that they have executed an innocent person, and yet, there is a general feeling that if there had been any proof as to Christie's multiple murders at the time Evans was tried, Evans would never have been convicted.
he outsider has little realization of the strain such multiple-murder cases put upon a police department. In a city the size of Boston, there is inevitably a certain amount of crime, and the Boston police force usually has its hands full working to discharge its regular duties and to furnish a reasonable amount of protection for the citizens. A whole series of new crimes, such as those of the Strangler, make their work load almost unmanageable.
And what about the strain on the citizens themselves, particularly young women? This is something that must be seen to be appreciated. We talked with several young women who are well-educated executives or highly paid secretaries in responsible positions, young women who know their way around and are not likely to be stampeded. They tell us that some of their friends simply could not take it and have moved out of the city. Others are living under such severe strain that it is gradually undermining their health. In every instance these young women enter their apartments upon returning from work apprehensive of what may well happen, and despite their emotional control, they are afraid. There has been a run on hardware stores for locks, bolts, and other safeguards.
"What do you do about the door when you enter?" one of them said. "You look in the closets, under the bed, and in the bathroom. If a man is in there you want to be able to run out, screaming for help. Therefore, you should leave the door open. But if you leave the door open while you are making a search, what is to prevent the Strangler from following you in and standing between you and your means of escape when you first see him? Do you enter the apartment, lock the door, and then start searching; or do you leave the door unlocked, or open, and make a hurried search?"
It seems incredible that under these circumstances anyone would let the Strangler into her apartment, or that once he does get into the apartment, his victim does not struggle or scream.
Lieutenant John Donovan of the homicide squad tells me that, despite the warnings that have been broadcast, despite the fear which is prevalent, he has on many occasions been admitted to apartments simply on his unsupported statement that he is a police officer, and without showing any credentials. It is, of course, quite possible that a man with a certain amount of ingenuity would have little trouble, particularly if he paved his way with a plausible telephone call. A young woman alone in her apartment with the doors and windows locked would, of course, answer the telephone.
An assured voice purporting to come from one of the utility companies says, in effect, "This is the serviceman. We wanted to be sure you were home; we'll have a repairman there in about ten or fifteen minutes to make an inspection."
Ten minutes later there is a knock at the door. The young woman asks, "Who's there?" and is reassured when the voice says casually, "The repairman, ma'am."
"Oh," she will say with relief, "they telephoned about you."
She will open the door, and while he goes to the kitchen she will busy herself elsewhere in the apartment. Then, perhaps, the light of a window will be cut off, as a shadow falls over her shoulder, or she may hear the sound of a stealthy tread behind her.
She whirls and opens her mouth to scream.
It is too late.
Checking with some of these young women in regard to what might be called suspicious characters who have perhaps tried to make contact with them or with some of their friends, I was shocked to find that so many of them had received numerous telephone calls from men who had made a few preliminary remarks and then launched into obscenities. Apparently this is becoming an occupational hazard in the lives of young women who live by themselves. In one instance, a young woman, sharing an apartment with another young woman and wishing to secure a congenial roommate, had placed an ad in the newspaper, giving the telephone number of the apartment. She was literally deluged with obscene telephone calls.
Of course, as soon as the nature of the call becomes apparent, most of these girls hang up; but one young woman told me that she listened to the whole tirade, and when the man had finished, she said to him, "Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" The man at the other end of the line, in a very subdued voice, whimpered, "Yes, I am," and hung up.
As I said at the outset, our civilization, with its constantly accelerating pace, is developing a group of misfits. Some of them are pathetic, and some of them are highly dangerous.
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Copyright © 1964 by Erle Stanley Gardner. Permission to post online granted by Hobson and Hughes, the lawful representatives of Erle Stanley Gardner's heirs. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1964; The Mad Strangler of Boston; Volume 213, No. 5; page 49.