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July 31, 2002
ver the past year, several children have disappeared from their homes and have yet to be found, including Elizabeth Smart in Utah, Alexis Patterson in Milwaukee, and Rilya Wilson in Florida. The American public has always been strangely enthralled by difficult crime cases. And as the Chandra Levy case showed us last year, that interest is ratcheted up substantially when there are no clear leads—or when possible leads indicate a scandal in the making. Two Atlantic articles written nearly a century apart testify to our ongoing fascination with these kinds of unsolved mysteries—and to the hazards of anonymous city-living.
In a November 1879 article, "Mysterious Disappearances," James Mokeller Bugby explored several cases in which a person vanished, never to be found again. In his view, the blame for these disappearances—mostly from large cities—could be placed squarely on society's move away from the family unit and community cohesiveness.
In every large city there are thousands of men, women, and children whose past history and whose present means of living are unknown to those with whom they come most closely in contact. It is only when some crime, at once frightful and mysterious, has been committed, and the newspaper reporters tell us of the inability of the police to identify the victim, or to find an adequate motive for the crime, that we fully appreciate the conditions of our modern city life.
Bugby recounted five tales of people who disappeared without explanation. In the first, a man left for Holland for a three-week trip, and didn't return for seventeen years. When he did come back, he gave no reason for his long absence.
The man never confessed, even to his most intimate friends, the cause of his singular conduct ... He led a perfectly correct life while in hiding ... Probably it was the freak of an unsound mind,—an unsoundness which might never have betrayed itself so as to attract attention in any other action of his life.
In the second case, which Bugby also attributed to an "unsound mind," a young girl had disappeared and was thought to have been murdered—only to be discovered living as a boy on a canal boat. Bugby wrote:
How many of the mysterious disappearances of which we read, and which are attributed to foul play, or to a weak or criminal desire to escape the obligations to one's family or to society, are prompted by the cunning of insanity cannot be known.
After a trunk with a young woman's remains was found floating in the Saugus River in Lynn, Massachusetts, a police detective told Bugby that there were at least fifty girls about the same age who had gone missing in the recent past. Moreover, many young women in the area lived alone, and those who lived near them were not "sufficiently familiar" to notice their disappearance. Young men, on the other hand, ran away from their homes—and were subsequently reported missing—in such large numbers as to be "quite astonishing," Bugby said.
[A] large proportion of the runaways are doubtless prompted to set up in business for themselves by the cheap novels, whose heroes almost invariably throw off the parental control at a very early age, and run away to certain fame and fortune.
Bugby recounted the tale of a boy who ran away from his New England home to sea; his relatives knew only that he had headed for a French colony. Many years later they received a wire from New Caledonia that a man had died, leaving a child. Based on the little girl's name, which was the same as the maiden name of the missing boy's mother, the Australian government returned her to the United States to live with siblings of the runaway. Bugby was not optimistic about the girl's survival in America.
Think of introducing this child, at the age of eight or ten, into a quiet New England family, and teaching it to look at life from the stand-point of the Assembly's catechism—its father a revolter against the restraints of New England life; its mother, or its mother's parents, a revolter, probably, against the laws of France!
The author recommended "greater unity of action" between the police departments of this country. He proposed as a model the "Habitual Criminal's Record," which had recently been instituted in England to keep track of repeat offenders.
The establishment of a "national police association" was recently recommended by the Boston police commission; but the recommendation appears to have met with so little favor that it was abandoned. All the heads of departments that expressed an opinion upon the suggestion admitted that such an association would greatly improve the police service throughout the country; but from political or other considerations many of them were unwilling to become members.
Bugby argued that police must become more vigilant, or the ranks of missing persons would only increase:
Unless the police lines are drawn closer around the inhabitants of our large cities, the number of those who mysteriously disappear from one cause or another will become still more alarming than it is at present.
Many of the same sentiments about the danger of living alone in large cities came to the surface in the mid-1960s, when for eighteen months the Boston Strangler terrorized New England. In all, twelve women ranging in age from nineteen to seventy-five years of age were killed in their homes in and around Boston, many in broad daylight. In the article "The Mad Strangler of Boston," from May 1964, "Perry Mason" creator Erle Stanley Gardner took a crack at the mystery then plaguing the city. As he noted, "Police are not at all certain those stranglings were the work of one man; but until they catch the culprit ... they cannot be positive."
After examining the reported evidence and gaining access to the Boston Police Department, Gardner summarized the case:
1. The Strangler's victims are all women.
The murders began in June of 1962, when fifty-five-year-old Anna Slesers was murdered in her apartment with a cord from her own housecoat, just after dinner. The residence appeared to have been burglarized, but on closer inspection, police discovered that nothing of value had been stolen. In addition, Slesers's body had been lewdly arranged, and there was evidence of sexual assault.
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 ...
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.
Over the next eight weeks, five more women would be murdered, each living alone, and each killed in a similar manner, usually with an article of her own clothing. All of the women had been sexually assaulted with unknown objects, their semi-nude bodies set in sexual positions—facts that were kept from the news media at the time. Of the six women, Slesers was the youngest, with ages ranging up to seventy-five-year-old Ida Irga, the fifth victim.
Then, for a three-month period, there were no new attacks. When the killings started again, with the December murder of Sophie Clark, the pattern had changed.
Clark was different in several ways from the earlier victims. She was young and black; she shared her apartment and was popular with fellow students at the Carnegie Institute of Medical Technology. And for the first time, evidence of semen was found near the body. Gardner suggested that the killer may have been lying in wait for his victim:
[D]uring 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.
It was later discovered that another tenant of Clark's apartment building had been approached by a man, claiming he had been sent to paint her apartment. When the woman mentioned her husband, who was asleep, the man became very flustered and left in a hurry. This technique of approach was one that Gardner had, in fact, highlighted from the report of the second victim:
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."
The last five victims were killed between December of 1962 and January of 1964. Along with Clark's, these deaths were much more spread out in time, and five of the six women were under twenty-five years of age. Many people believe to this day that the final six murders were committed by another person—if not several.
Mrs. Nichols did not call back within a few minutes ...
[T]his 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.
Gardner described the police's increasing desperation:
[T]hey 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.
At one point, the Boston police called for the services of a local clairvoyant. Even after Edward W. Brooke, the attorney general of Massachusetts, personally took over the case (and called in a second psychic), it was more than a year before any leads were developed.
In the course of these routines the police investigated six thousand persons.
The first break was in 1965, a year after Gardner's article was published, and it came from an unlikely source: F. Lee Bailey, the lawyer of George Nassar, a highly intelligent convicted murderer in the local prison's psychiatric ward. Bailey had been told by his client about Albert DeSalvo, a man convicted of many burglaries and a few rapes. DeSalvo, who believed he would spend the rest of his life in the psychiatric institution, went in with Nassar on a plan in which Nasser would turn him in, collect the reward money, and split it between them. DeSalvo confessed to the eleven known murders, along with a twelfth murder and a thirteenth attempt, in specific detail—extraordinarily exact at times, but at others quite incorrect. DeSalvo, who had an extremely low IQ, was found guilty, despite the few eyewitnesses all ruling him out as the Boston Strangler—and two fingering George Nassar.
The controversy surrounding the Boston Strangler and Albert DeSalvo, who was killed in prison in 1973, continues to this day. In December of 2001, a DNA match was attempted between DeSalvo's remains and evidence collected at one of the crime scenes. The test came back negative.
Of course, at the time he wrote the article, Gardner could not have known about any of these later developments. But he made an astute speculation about the manner in which the killings might have taken place. Because of all the unknowns surrounding this case, we will most likely never know whether or not this was how the crimes occurred:
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.
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Ivan Boothe is a new media intern for The Atlantic.
All material copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.