By Barbara McMahon
Sexist police told them to stop meddling. Dinosaur colleagues branded them ‘sob sisters’. Now a film starring Keira Knightley celebrates the courage of...
LATE at night in a deserted newsroom, reporter Jean Cole was still at her desk, typing furiously. The subject of her article? The serial killer known as the Boston Strangler, who had already murdered seven women.
Glancing at the clock, the 34-year-old mother of two gathered her belongings to go home. The only noise that pierced the eeriness of the night as she entered the garage where her car was parked was the clatter of her high heels.
For weeks, Jean and her colleague Loretta McLaughlin had been working on an investigation into the man who could seemingly materialise like a phantom in the locked homes of his victims, sexually assault and kill them, and then disappear without trace.
The murders had struck fear into the hearts of women, young and old. Even Loretta and Jean admitted their investigations ‘had given both of us nightmares’.
Little wonder, considering the forensic nature of their enquiries, examining the minutiae of each death for clues. Take victim Ida Irga, whose half-naked body had been found with her feet propped up on chairs, a pillow placed under her buttocks, and a white pillowcase tied around her neck in a grotesque parody of a gynaecological examination.
Other victims met their terrifying end after nylon stockings were wound round their necks and tied in flamboyant bows with an extra half-hitch knot, the Strangler’s calling card.
Jean had already been forced to change her home telephone number after unsettling calls featuring heavy breathing, and an almost incomprehensible male voice. There was no doubt the Strangler was getting to her.
Now, as she walked through the dimly-lit garage, her heart raced as the shadows deepened. Running to her car, she jumped in, locked the doors and sped away. From that day, her husband Frank picked her up whenever she had to work late.
Sixty years on, the inspiring story of how two plucky and resourceful female reporters — notable in an era when newsrooms were macho, rampantly sexist environments — pursued the story at great personal risk has been brought to life. Keira Knightley stars as Loretta and Carrie Coon as Jean in the new film, Boston Strangler, due out next month.
Photographs from the set show the actresses challenging hardened homicide detectives, who initially believed there was no evidence that the stranglings were the work of one man. Yet for years their crucial role was overlooked.
‘Jean and Loretta were virtually ignored in all the stories about how the Boston Strangler murders came to be solved,’ Jane Coleman, Jean’s 66-year-old daughter, told the Mail.
‘These two young women worked their guts out to make sure other women were aware of the dangers happening in their city and to uncover the truth. It was women talking to women, for the sake of every woman, and that was unique and had never been done before.’
Meanwhile, Loretta’s son, Neil McLaughlin, 63, tells me: ‘Because of their interviewing and reporting, real change happened in law enforcement in Boston.’
This refers to the Boston Task Force, set up by the state attorney general after the two women catalogued the police’s initially chaotic response to the murders.
‘We’re pleased my mother and Jean are getting the recognition they deserve with this film,’ says Neil.
It was in June 1962 that a petite 55year-old divorcee called Anna Slesers was found murdered in her apartment in the quiet neighbourhood of Back Bay.
Two weeks later, another woman was found strangled. Then, over the summer, two more met the same fate. But because the murders happened in different parts of Boston and its surrounding areas, they were investigated by separate police forces. None of the detectives involved compared notes.
Loretta McLaughlin, a reporter at the Boston Record American, was the first to start connecting the dots. Two more women were soon found dead — then the serial killer changed his pattern. While his first six victims had been aged 55 to 85, now they included career women in their 20s.
Boston women were terrified, all but barricading themselves in their homes, or moving in with friends because they were afraid to be alone at night. They carried hatpins stuck in their coat sleeves, and pepper and ammonia in their handbags. Some took up judo and karate.
The police said they were working flat-out on the murders, but officers still insisted on talking about murderers rather than a single killer.
As the story grew, Loretta was paired with Jean, who had already distinguished herself by working undercover as a nurse’s aide to expose corruption and neglect of patients in nursing homes.
THE two women, both working mothers in their 30s, hoped to find the pattern that would point the way to the killer. Loretta — who coined the term Boston Strangler — and Jean made a good team, says Jane. ‘My mother was interested in the details of the crime scenes and the backgrounds of the women, while Loretta was interested in the personality of the killer and the scientific and medical stuff,’ explains Jane.
Painstakingly, the women visited the scene of every slaying. They knocked on doors and persuaded frightened residents to talk.
As the body count grew — eventually rising to 13 — some detectives began to take them seriously. But, by-and-large, they were treated with ridicule.
‘The police weren’t happy about the stories my mother and Loretta were writing, and considered them meddlesome,’ says Jane.
George Frazier, a columnist on a competing newspaper, described them as ‘a couple of sob sisters’ and poured scorn on their work.
‘For a pair of girl reporters — not reporters, but girl reporters — to undermine people’s confidence in its law enforcement agency by casting amateurish aspersions upon it is irresponsible,’ he lectured. his diatribe prompted letters of support for Jean and Loretta, with one female reader saying: ‘If they believe it is their duty to try to enlighten the public and yes, even the Boston Police Department, about what is going on, then I believe they should be given assistance rather than condemnation.’
Some of Jean and Loretta’s male colleagues also made jokes in poor taste. Jean was unpleasantly surprised when she walked into the office one day, says her daughter, and found a manila envelope on her desk. ‘It was addressed to her and Loretta,’ says Jane. ‘Inside was a pair of nylon stockings, a hallmark of the killer. I guess some man thought he was being funny.’
Jane says her mother and Loretta just got on with the job.
‘They were both serious-minded and dedicated women. They didn’t want the fact that they were women to enter into the conversation at any point, and they didn’t let anybody see any female vulnerabilities that could be exploited.’
‘My mother didn’t want the men she worked with to treat her differently, so she never complained about their language or the way some of them behaved — she didn’t pay any attention to it. But she always knew she had to be a little bit better than the men.’
WRITING 29 articles, the pair ploughed on. Women read every word, feeling that Jean and Loretta understood the fear they were living with daily.
Indeed, they felt the same terror. Loretta, who had been typing her articles late at night on the dining room table at home, found it so unnerving to write about the gruesome details that she would go upstairs, wake her husband, Jim, and ask him to come down and sit with her while she wrote.
As for Jean, she said she was all too aware of her and Loretta’s prominence within the story — and feared they could be targeted themselves.
‘All I knew was that he was out there somewhere, and pictures of Loretta and me were in thousands of newspapers daily for weeks,’ Jean recalled later. ‘I asked myself: “Did he read newspapers? Do we present a challenge you couldn’t resist?”
‘ Even if the real killer wasn’t interested in us, how about a copycat killer?’
It didn’t stop the two reporters from continuing, however. After gleaning insights from psychiatrists, Jean and Loretta predicted that the killer was likely to be middle-aged, intelligent and of small to medium size, but muscular like a ballet dancer. When not killing women, the rest of his life would appear normal, they suggested.
‘The mind of the killer is twisted and sick, a psychopathic personality with sex deviations. The odds are that he will stay that way, and stay here and stay alive,’ Loretta and Jean warned their readers.
‘To save themselves from him, women must live in caution. There is but one answer: the strangler must be caught.’
Then, after two years of killings, the murders stopped in 1964. Many of their predictions about the killer came true, however, when, in 1965, Albert DeSalvo, a patient at Bridgewater State hospital in Massachusetts, a facility for the criminally insane, confessed to being the Boston Strangler.
Born in Boston in 1931, DeSalvo had a warped childhood at the hands of a violent father and was made to watch the abuse of his mother, Charlotte, who once had all her fingers broken in front of him and his siblings. At an early age DeSalvo demonstrated extreme cruelty to animals and, aged 12, was arrested for beating up a child of similar age.
In 1948, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After being sent to Germany, he married a local girl, with whom he had two children. When DeSalvo returned to Boston in 1955, he was
arrested for molesting a nineyearold girl, but the charges were dropped. Robberies he committed only saw him receiving suspended sentences.
In 1961, he was revealed to be the sexual attacker nicknamed the Measuring Man. He would knock on women’s doors claiming to represent a modelling agency, and promise women photographic work for $40 an hour, before taking their vital statistics and molesting them. Imprisoned for these crimes, he was released after only a year — and his Boston Strangler killing spree resumed shortly afterwards.
In 1964, he was arrested for another spate of sexual attacks, nicknamed the Green Man rapes, where he would gain access to women’s apartments by posing as a maintenance worker wearing a green shirt and green trousers.
It was while languishing in Bridgewater State Hospital that DeSalvo — who fit almost perfectly the profile Jean and Loretta had constructed for the Boston Strangler — admitted that he was not only the Measuring Man and the Green Man, but the Strangler, too.
‘My mother followed the story through to the end,’ says Jane.
Indeed, Jean saw DeSalvo in person through a two-way mirror at Bridgewater, when he spent weeks confessing the details of his crimes to his lawyer and a psychiatrist.
She also sat through DeSalvo’s court case, hearing his attorney describe his client as being consumed by ‘one of the most crushing sexual drives that psychiatric science has ever encountered’.
In 1967, DeSalvo was finally imprisoned for life for his earlier crimes of robbery and rape — but later recanted his confession that he was the Boston Strangler. He was stabbed to death as he slept in his prison cell in 1973.
DESPITE his denials while alive, DNA testing on his exhumed remains in 2013 confirmed that Mary Sullivan, who was raped and murdered in 1964, was indeed DeSalvo’s last victim. the 19-yearold’s murder had been particularly fiendish — propped up in her own bed, she had been sexually assaulted with a broom handle and strangled with a stocking. Between her feet was a card proclaiming ‘Happy New Year!’
Sadly, neither Jean nor Loretta will get to see themselves in the new film. Jean died in 2015 and Loretta in 2018.
‘My mother would have been very pleased that this story is being told from her and Jean’s perspective, because they were two accomplished women who did important work,’ says Neil.
‘they were extraordinary women — young women need to hear what they went through to be respected in their profession,’ adds Jane, who says she and her sister, Julie, are extremely proud of their mother.
though DeSalvo’s recanting of his confession means some people still dispute whether he was the sole killer of all 13 women, Jean and Loretta had no doubts.
‘When Loretta and I were assigned to do the stories about women who had been murdered, and point out what we thought were similarities or connections between them, I don’t recall anyone suggesting that we were expected to solve these cases,’ Jean later recalled.
‘All I know is that he was out there somewhere . . . at the time of the stories and long afterward, I was firmly convinced the stranglings had all the marks of being perpetrated by one person.
‘Until he [DeSalvo] was captured, I was compelled to look over my shoulder everywhere I went.’
BOSTON Strangler is out on Friday March 17 on Disney Plus.