The Tenacious Women Reporters Who Helped Expose the Boston Strangler
A new film explores Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole’s efforts to unmask a serial killer believed to have murdered 13 women between 1962 and 1964
Even after his capture, confession and incarceration, the identity of the “Boston Strangler” remained contested.
Skeptics both then and now claimed the man who had confessed to the crimes, Albert DeSalvo, couldn’t have committed all 13 of the murders attributed to him. Even in the local police department, some refused to believe the killings that haunted Boston in the early 1960s were the work of a lone individual. According to these critics, one killer may have been responsible for some of the murders, but copycats likely capitalized on the terror, too, drawing on detailed newspaper coverage of the crimes to replicate the strangler’s M.O.
The speculation surrounding the serial killer is now getting the Hollywood treatment, with a particular focus on two women journalists who doggedly reported on the murders of single women across the Boston area. Premiering on Hulu and Disney+ on March 17, Boston Strangler stars Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as reporters Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole, respectively. The pair’s investigations for the Boston Record American (a forebearer of the Boston Herald) offered scrupulous insights on the murders and advanced the theory that the crimes were the work of a single killer, whom they dubbed the “Boston Strangler.”
The new film charts the women’s attempts to report on the escalating crimes while navigating sexism in the workplace and police recalcitrance prompted by the depth of their reporting. In the summer of 1962, toward the start of the killing spree, “an editor disputed the worth of a series on the four dead women, noting that they were ‘nobodies,’” McLaughlin later recalled. “Why should anyone murder four obscure women? That was what made them so interesting … sisters in anonymity, like all of us.”
McLaughlin and Cole’s reporting sparked controversy both in the newsroom and beyond. Their first major story together, published in January 1963, was headlined “Two Girl Reporters Analyze Strangler”—a title that ignored the pair’s journalistic achievements and the fact that they were then in their 30s. Authorities were angry at the level of detail the Record American revealed to the public, and they rejected the pair’s suggestion that one man was responsible for terrorizing the women of the city. The police also tried to suppress key information, including excerpts from files leaked by the medical examiner’s office.
Today, some still view the Record American’s coverage of the killings as damaging. Casey Sherman, author of A Rose for Mary: The Hunt for the Real Boston Strangler, says, “If you despised a woman in the 1960s, you had a blueprint on how to commit a Boston Strangler-style murder, because all of the grisly details were printed.” Knightley, meanwhile, tells Screen Rant the two reporters were simply providing information that needed to be public “to keep [the] women of Boston safe.”
The Boston Strangler is credited with the killings of 13 women between June 1962 and January 1964. Ranging in age from 19 to 85, most of the victims were sexually assaulted in their homes, then strangled to death with articles of clothing. (Exceptions included 26-year-old Beverly Samans, who was stabbed to death, and 85-year-old Mary Mullen, who seemingly died of a heart attack during the assault.)
The first victim, 55-year-old Anna Slesers, was found strangled with her bathrobe belt on the kitchen floor of her apartment on June 14, 1962. Within a few weeks, two women in their 60s were also found sexually assaulted and strangled. A pattern was emerging of a madman brutalizing unmarried older women in their homes.
By late August, the number of victims was up to six: Slesers, Mullen, Nina Nichols, Helen Blake, Ida Irga and Jane Sullivan. (Authorities only attributed Mullen’s death to the Boston Strangler years later, when DeSalvo confessed to attacking her.) Local newspapers carried breathless coverage of the killings, accusing a “phantom strangler” of unleashing a “maniacal spree of violence [that has] gripped in terror thousands of Greater Boston women who live alone,” as the Boston Globe put it.
What unnerved so many was that these women had been attacked in their own homes after apparently voluntarily allowing the killer inside. To protect themselves, some women began carrying pepper and ammonia, tear gas guns, or hatpins. Police advised women who lived alone to lock all of their doors and windows and “let no one into an apartment until positive identification is established.”
A brief respite arrived in fall 1962, with no new killings reported until December. The break helped authorities better mobilize to investigate the murders and improve communication between units from the various municipalities in which the crimes took place.
Initially, the assailant was believed to be targeting middle-aged or elderly women. Then, on December 5, Sophie Clark, a 20-year-old African American student at the Carnegie Institute of Medical Technology, was found strangled with a pair of stockings in the foyer of her apartment.
The police investigation took a sharp turn. The murders were no longer limited to older white women, and the killer—or killers, as some posited—was becoming more brazen in his attacks, leaving semen at a crime scene for the first time. Another young woman, 22-year-old Patricia Bissette, turned up dead in her apartment, a white blouse and three stockings tied around her neck, on New Year’s Eve.
After reports of the fourth killing broke that summer, McLaughlin urged her editor at the Record American to give her the space to probe the unsolved murders. She and Cole were already accomplished investigative journalists: McLaughlin had earned recognition for her medical stories, while Cole was known for a yearslong exposé on nursing homes in Massachusetts.
Beginning in January 1963, the pair wrote a major investigative series on the strangler, “in which they not only reconstructed the crimes themselves but dissected the police investigations as well,” writes Susan Kelly in her book The Boston Stranglers, originally published in 1995.
McLaughlin and Cole were among the most vocal critics of the investigation’s inefficiencies and oversights. In tense meetings with the attorney general’s office, the pair argued that the Boston Police Department had fed false information to the press and failed to exchange the names of suspects with other law enforcement agencies, among other examples of mismanagement.
All of the duo’s articles were meticulous and unsparing in their details. In a January 14 report about Blake, for instance, McLaughlin and Cole recounted how the killer had apparently sifted through the 65-year-old’s belongings:
Some drawers are pulled out of a desk and a bureau. Others are removed completely and set on the floor. … Helen’s watches have all been examined and placed on the bureau. Her jewelry boxes have been opened and are on the floor. Her pocketbooks have been gone through. Even the sugar bowl and teapot have been looked into.
Authorities were livid that such extensive detail had filtered out to the public, arguing that anyone could confess to or imitate the murders based on this information. As Kelly notes, a January 23 article furthered these fears, listing the names, ages, employers and hobbies of the suspected victims, as well as their times of death, when their bodies were found, their causes of death, what they were wearing when they were killed, the probability of sexual assault and whether their apartment had been ransacked.
In articles like “Strangler Strong, Calm, Cold Killer,” McLaughlin and Cole argued the murders were the work of a single, intelligent psychopath with a history of sexually deviant behavior. Beyond the fact that all of the victims were single women, they found compelling connections between the attacks. According to Gerold Frank’s The Boston Strangler, published in 1966, the reporters noted that each victim was “orderly, well-groomed, self-sufficient, respectable.” The murders often involved “strangling, using a personal article of the victim,” and the assailant usually spent time “inspecting the victim’s belongings” after the attack. The sexual assaults were “peculiarly incomplete.”
After publishing 29 articles in just one month, McLaughlin and Cole’s carte blanche reporting freedom came to a screeching halt. Enormous external political pressure, plus internal newspaper politics, shut down their efforts in February 1963. Critics, among them the women’s editors, the police and the senior medical examiner, considered the pair meddling reporters who weren’t actually helping the investigation. Detective James Mellon refused to read the series, telling a friend, “I want to be sure that what I know comes from the case itself, not from someone’s typewriter.”
Four more murders attributed to the Boston Strangler took place in 1963, confounding investigators and leaving the public convinced there was no end to the killings in sight. Joann Graff, 22, was the youngest of the four new victims, while 69-year-old Mary Brown was the oldest. Brown had been stabbed multiple times but died of strangulation; another victim, 26-year-old Samans, died of stab wounds but was found with scarves and a stocking tied around her neck. The killer’s final victim, 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, was murdered on January 4, 1964.
Massachusetts Attorney General Edward Brooke took control of the investigation a few days later, launching a major task force commonly referred to as the “Strangler Bureau.” He promised to centralize competing investigations in different municipalities and dedicate new resources to capturing this phantom killer.
A major development in the case arrived on October 27, 1964, when DeSalvo—later described by the Boston Herald as an “erstwhile … handyman”—conned his way into a woman’s home by posing as a police detective. In a break from the Boston Strangler’s established pattern, DeSalvo raped the woman, apologized to her and then left. She reported him to the police, who picked him up based on her description. When DeSalvo’s photograph appeared in the newspapers, other women came forward to say he’d attacked them, too.
DeSalvo was charged with assault, burglary and sex offenses—but not murder. While awaiting trial for a different set of attacks known as the “Green Man” crimes in late 1965, he told a fellow inmate he was also responsible for the Boston Strangler killings. The inmate then relayed this intelligence to his attorney.
Subsequent conversations with police seemingly confirmed DeSalvo’s guilt. He knew specific details of the murders, such as the color of the furniture in some of the victims’ apartments and the identity of a victim whose photograph had never been previously published. His confession helped convince the people of Boston the serial killer had finally been caught. But doubts lingered, as no physical evidence linked DeSalvo to the crimes.
DeSalvo stood trial for the Green Man assaults in January 1967. The Record American covered the trial, using Cole and a string of other reporters to keep readers updated, but didn’t revisit the 1963 series.
DeSalvo’s attorney, F. Lee Bailey (who later defended Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson), argued for his client to end up in a hospital, “where doctors could try to find out what made him kill.” Instead, DeSalvo was sentenced to life in prison—a result that led Bailey to declare, “Society is deprived of a study that might help deter other mass killers who lived among us, waiting for the trigger to go off inside them.”
DeSalvo was never tried for the Boston Strangler murders. Besides a February 1967 jailbreak that sparked a statewide manhunt, he spent the remainder of his life in prison. He was stabbed to death in a prison infirmary in November 1973, shortly after recanting his confession.
Debates over DeSalvo’s guilt continue to this day, despite a 2013 DNA analysis that convincingly connected him to Sullivan’s murder. Investigators concluded that DeSalvo was “most likely” responsible for the other Boston Strangler killings, too. But some dispute this point, emphasizing that the DNA only links DeSalvo to one of the murders and speculating that multiple killers were responsible for the rest of the crimes. Kelly, for instance, sticks to her original conclusion that “there was not one Boston Strangler, but rather a bare minimum of six and much more likely eight or nine.”
Certain contemporary observers also remain unconvinced that McLaughlin and Cole’s work was in the public interest. They “helped to create and feed the narrative that there was a sole serial killer stalking the women of Boston from 1962 [to] 1964,” says Sherman, who is Sullivan’s nephew. “By doing so, they did a disservice to investigators working for the Boston Strangler Task Force, [which] identified at least six suspects who they believed had committed the murders independently from each other.” (Decades after the murders, McLaughlin remained adamant that DeSalvo was the assailant, writing, “People still ask if Albert DeSalvo was really the Boston Strangler. Yes, he was.”)
Others give credit where credit is due. In her book, Kelly argues that the pair’s reporting was “brilliant investigative journalism” and the work of “two extraordinarily resourceful and tenacious reporters.” Still, she qualifies her praise by writing, “The template for homicide provided by the Record American’s ‘Strangle Worksheet’ no doubt influenced [other criminals] as well.”
In a 1991 op-ed, McLaughlin recalled how editors undermined her reporting because of her gender: “Being a female reporter was often semi-apologetically noted for the readers. … Among my newsclips are several with a headline stating, ‘Girl reporter covers’ whatever it was, from murder to presidential elections.” After covering the Boston Strangler murders, however, both McLaughlin and Cole went on to have storied careers in investigative journalism.
McLaughlin focused on health and medicine, particularly emerging public health issues like the AIDS epidemic. She reported on the “mysterious new disorder” as early as 1982. Later, as an editorial page editor at the Boston Globe, she used her position to blast “the federal government for its failure to respond forcefully to the [AIDS] crisis,” said colleague Marjorie Pritchard in her obituary. McLaughlin died in 2018 at age 90.
Cole, meanwhile, stayed on the crime beat. In the mid-1960s, she reported on criminal activity in a downtown Boston district known for its sex work and underage drinking. She and her colleagues at the Record American coined a popular nickname for the neighborhood: the “Combat Zone.” Cole worked at the Record American’s successor publication, the Boston Herald American, until her retirement in 1981. She died in 2015 at age 89.
Reminiscing about Cole to the Boston Herald earlier this year, her brother, photographer Kevin Cole, described her as “very tough. She did the stories women didn’t do—murders included.”