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“Boston Strangler” Tells the True Story of the Infamous Serial Killer Through the Eyes of the Incredible Women Who Broke the Story

by Zoë Lourey-Christianson

In the 1960s, the women of eastern Massachusetts were being hunted by a predator…or possibly many. From 1962 to 1964, thirteen women were murdered in their homes by a killer who left no sign of forced entry and little-to-no evidence. Most of the women were assaulted and strangled with their own clothing (often nylon stockings), which the killer would tie into a bow around their neck. 

Despite this specific modus operandi and detailed coverage of the first few murders by the media, the crimes weren’t being attributed to a lone perpetrator by police or newspapers. Following the discovery of a fourth victim, it was the tenacity and skilled investigative reporting of Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole of the Boston Record American that finally exposed the likely theory of a serial killer being active in the area. 

Their first major story about the crimes together was published in 1963 and titled “Two Girl Reporters Analyze Strangler,” as if “girls” reporting on murder was as much the news as the string of horrific murders themselves (to be fair, serial murder does kind of seem to be a guy-thing). 

The story of these determined women is the subject of the aptly titled 20th Century Studios film, Boston Strangler, starring Keira Knightley as Loretta McLaughlin and Carrie Coon as Jean Cole (who later married and changed her last name to Harris), and premiered on Hulu on March 17th. 

The film follows the reporters as they attempt to prove the murders could be the work of a lone perpetrator and expose police mishandling of the case during what was a deeply terrifying time for women in the Boston area. Viewers see McLaughlin struggle to be taken seriously as a reporter, being instead relegated to work on the “feminine” subjects of beauty, home, and lifestyle reporting. But, when a fourth local woman is murdered under suspiciously familiar circumstances, McLaughlin is the first person to theorize the possibility of an active serial killer. 

She persuades the Boston Record American editor, played by Chris Cooper, to let her investigate the story by offering to do it on her own time, demonstrating one of the many sexist hoops she is forced to jump through while covering the case. The film does a great job of highlighting the misogyny of the time with a light hand—the sexism itself is not the story, but merely a piece of the much more significant story of McLaughlin and Cole. 

Knightley points out in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that, “Women in public spaces—it’s a constant problem. From the everyday office situation, where your voice isn’t being heard, to the most extreme aspect, femicide. This film tells an interesting story that covers the whole spectrum.”  

The movie’s gloomy color palette and tactful use of cinematography creates some moments of chilling, palpable fear. The real-life Boston Strangler murders were twisted and disturbing, and the movie conveys this without making the viewers watch a woman being murdered, which is appreciated. This helps keep the movie’s narrative focused on the women doing the investigative work on this case rather than sensationalizing the murders in the name of filmmaking. 

Another thing the film does well is highlight the way law enforcement botched this entire investigation. Authorities at the time were upset at McLaughlin and Cole’s reporting due to it being highly-detailed and unsparing, and we see this play out in the movie, as well. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the dynamic duo even accused the Boston Police Department of sharing false information with the press, failing to share key information about their investigation with surrounding law enforcement agencies, and many more examples of incompetence and/or negligence.

The film’s strongest point overall, though, is the way it captures the untidy, ambiguity of the entire case.   

In 1965, a man named Albert DeSalvo confessed to carrying out the thirteen horrific slayings attributed to the previously unidentified Boston Strangler. He was never tried for the killings, and to this day, there is much debate over whether or not DeSalvo is the true perpetrator. 

As played out in real life and in the movie, many believe it isn’t possible for him to have committed all thirteen assaults and murders, and that other killers in the area were using heavily-detailed public media reports to make their own crimes seem connected. In 2013, DNA evidence linked DeSalvo to the murder of the assumed final victim of the Boston Strangler, Mary Sullivan. 

While this confirms he was responsible for Sullivan’s murder, it does not necessarily prove he was responsible for the other twelve murders. In Boston Strangler, viewers see Knightley’s McLaughlin and Coon’s Cole deal with the realization that DeSalvo’s confession may have been made under false pretenses, and potentially even in cahoots with another famous murderer, George Nassar. 

No matter the identity—or identities—of the Boston Strangler, the thirteen victims deserve to be remembered for the full and important lives they lived, rather than just how they died. Their names are: Anna Slesers, Mary Mullen, Nina Nichols, Helen Blake, Ida Irga, Jane Sullivan, Sophie Clark, Patricia Bissette, Mary Brown, Beverly Samans, Evelyn Corbin, Joann Graff, and Mary Sullivan. 

The glass-ceiling-shattering work of reporters Loretta McLaughlin, who passed away in 2018, and Jean Cole, who passed away in 2015, will certainly be remembered. Boston Strangler tells their story in a gripping way, leaving viewers perhaps uncertain of who the murderer is, but absolute in their respect for the remarkable McLaughlin and Cole.

Top photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. (c) 2020. 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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