If Albert DeSalvo Wasn't The Boston Strangler, Who Was? Bill James Investigates

During the years 1962-64, 13 women in the Boston area were molested and then strangled by an assailant who came to be known as the Boston Strangler. In 1965, Albert DeSalvo, a convicted sex offender and patient at a local mental institute, began telling people he committed the murders. With the help of superstar attorney F. Lee Bailey, and with the support of investigators eager to be rid of the case, DeSalvo confessed to the killings during a trial for unrelated crimes. No physical evidence linked him to the Boston Strangler cases, and DeSalvo was never convicted of those killings. But for years after his confession the popular assumption remained that the Strangler murders were the work of one man, and that that man was DeSalvo. In an excerpt from his new book, Popular Crime, Bill James, the patron saint of sabermetrics, explains how DeSalvo couldn't have been the Boston Strangler.

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Some of Albert DeSalvo's confessions, at least as edited and released by the police, may have the ring of truth. But many of DeSalvo's confessions, in all honesty, don't sound right. They're based too much on visual recall. All of the books about DeSalvo note this visual recall at least in passing. He would "close his eyes," wrote F. Lee Bailey in The Defense Never Rests. "Then, as if he were watching a videotape replay, he would describe what had happened" (emphasis mine). Two pages later, Bailey recounts DeSalvo telling police that, at one victim's apartment, he had knocked a pack of cigarettes to the floor beside a bureau. He named the brand of the cigarettes. At this, says Bailey, the police investigator "grabbed his briefcase and pulled out a photo showing the bureau and a pack of cigarettes just as Albert had described it."

My reaction, on reading that, was "that sounds like DeSalvo had seen the same photograph that the cop had." I did not know, at that time, that Dr. Ames Robey had been claiming for years that that was exactly what had happened: the police showed DeSalvo photographs of the crime scenes.

"Whether or not DeSalvo had ever been at the Goldberg house," wrote Sebastian Junger in A Death in Belmont, "the newspaper photo was clearly the source of his description" (emphasis mine). DeSalvo had studied the photo of a house where a murder occurred so intently that, years later, he could still describe in detail what the photo contained-square drainpipes, shades pulled down. He remembered the outside of the house from studying the photo in the newspaper.

"I went into number 77," said DeSalvo in supposedly recounting the first of the murders. "I remember it said that on glass over the door in gold letters." It doesn't sound right; to me; it doesn't sound like he was really there. It sounds like he had seen the pictures.

If Albert DeSalvo Wasn't The Boston Strangler, Who Was? Bill James Investigates

I don't get into visiting crime scenes, but I lived in Boston during most of the time I was writing this book. I noticed that one of the Strangler murders occurred at 515 Park Drive, and I would often catch the T at St. Mary's Square, on the Green Line. 515 Park Drive is just about a one-minute walk from St. Mary's Square. It is close enough that, if you came out the door of 515 Park and saw the train, you might be able to catch it before it left.

Then another time my wife and I were going to the Boston Symphony, and we were a little early and walking around the neighborhood, and we happened to walk past 77 Gainsborough Street, where the first of the Stranglings occurred. I noticed that it's just a block or two off the Green Line. Two of the later murders, which occurred within a quarter-mile of the first, are actually on the other side of that Line, so that the three murders crowd around one stop on the Green Line.

And then one time I was walking out near Boston College, just getting a little exercise, and I realized that I was near another of the murder scenes, at 1940 Commonwealth Avenue, so I took a moment and looked at that building. And there, not thirty feet from the door of 1940 Commonwealth, was a T stop. It's the Green Line.

Another of the murders occurred at 1435 Commonwealth. It's another stop on the same spur of the same line.

There's more to it than that. The Green Line has several spurs. 515 Park Drive, which is about a one-minute walk from the C spur of the Green Line, is also about a two-minute walk from the B spur; it is near the place where they split off from one another, so that one can get quickly to either line.

If Albert DeSalvo Wasn't The Boston Strangler, Who Was? Bill James InvestigatesS

From that point the B and C spurs of the Green Line diverge, being at one point separated by more than a mile. Then they converge again. You know where they almost meet again? 1940 Commonwealth, where the second of the murders occurred, is right on the B spur—and a five-minute walk from the C spur. That's where they come back together. The closest point is 1940 Commonwealth.

77 Gainsborough Street, where the first murder occurred, is just off the E spur of the Green Line—but that's not how my wife and I got to the Symphony. We got there on a different spur, which is a short walk away.

The T system in Boston is good, but it does not have fantastic coverage of the city. There are substantial portions of the Boston area where you can't really use the T, because it takes too long to get to it.

Several of the Boston Strangler's murders occurred not only right on the T system, but in areas that were served by multiple lines of the T system—as if perhaps the murderer had thought ahead, "I might have to come out of here and go this way, or I might have to go down that way. I need to be able to get out of this area as quickly as I can no matter which way I'm heading."

Albert DeSalvo, in his "confessions" to the crime, claimed that he drove to the murder scenes. I wonder. Where did he park? Why didn't anybody find a parking receipt? Why did he drive, one time after another, into areas that are notoriously difficult to drive to? The murders up in Lawrence and Lynn and Salem . . . somebody may have driven to those. The "original" Strangler murders, the ones that started the panic . . . I'd be willing to bet that whoever committed those murders got there and left on the T.

There's actually more to it than that. We lived not in Boston but in Brookline, which is an independent city so close that you could walk from our apartment to the Boston Common. It's a couple of miles. "Did any of the murders occur in Brookline?" my wife asked.

Well, no, not quite. 515 Park Drive is in Boston—but if you cross the street, you're in Brookline.
1940 Commonwealth is three miles away from there, in the Brighton Section of Boston, near Newton—but you can throw a rock from there back into Brookline.

1435 Commonwealth is in Brighton—but it's a four-minute walk from Brookline.

4 University Drive, where one of the victims lived, is in Cambridge—but it's not a half-mile from Brookline.

The Green Line of the Boston T system serves Brookline (and other areas); one spur goes down the north and west sides of Brookline, another along the east side, and a third goes through the heart of the little city.

In serial murder cases, if you plot the crime scenes on a map and connect the dots, very often they will form a sort of circle, and very often the murderer will live near the center of that circle. This is well known now, although it wasn't recognized until about 1980. If you draw a circle on a map which is a one-mile radius from Coolidge Corner, it doesn't include any of the murder scenes. But if you draw a circle which is a three-mile radius around Coolidge Corner, it includes virtually all of the murder scenes in Boston and Cambridge—all but one—and there are murder scenes at all points of the compass.

I am not saying that this is true, but it is possible. It is possible that the Boston Strangler lived in Brookline, perhaps between Coolidge Corner and Brookline Village, and that he deliberately left Brookline to commit his crimes, knowing that Brookline has its own police force, and that it might be in his best interests not to have his local police force looking for him.

If Albert DeSalvo Wasn't The Boston Strangler, Who Was? Bill James InvestigatesS

Actually, there are two circles here—one that is formed by the murders in Boston, and a much larger circle formed if you include the murders in the northern towns. DeSalvo lived nowhere near the smaller circle, the "walking" circle—but he was near the center of the larger circle. I don't know what to make of it. It seems odd to me that this killer came in from several miles to the north and committed these murders that accidentally trace a neat pattern around the edges of Brookline. If the real Strangler did live near Coolidge Corner, and if he did use the T to move around, he could have been back in his apartment ten minutes after leaving most of the buildings where the crimes were committed.

Why did DeSalvo confess? He was crazy, to begin with, and was notorious for telling self-aggrandizing whoppers. According to Bailey, the very first thing that he heard from DeSalvo, by way of Nassar, was "would it be possible for him to publish his story and make some money with it?" The last thing anybody heard from DeSalvo was, he was suing people because the money he had been promised disappeared before it reached his pockets.

One can see that, if the police knew that DeSalvo had not really committed the crimes but wanted to take credit for them, then they might allow him to take "credit" for the murders in the public's eye, but never charge him in connection with them. That way, if and when the real murderer was discovered, there would be no impediment to prosecution. If the police had actually charged DeSalvo with the murders,

a) they would have had to present some sort of corroborative evidence, which they did not have, and
b) they would have been in a difficult position if the series of murders resumed and the murderer was caught.

The way it worked out was good for the police—in fact, it was great for the police. The police had an excuse to call off the time-consuming, frustrating and fantastically expensive investigation, they got the public to believe that they had solved the crimes—but all of their options were still on the table if the real murderer re-surfaced.

The Belmont murder—Sebastian Junger's case—was never officially associated with the Strangler crimes. Junger, clinging to the belief that DeSalvo may have been guilty, works this into a theory of why DeSalvo, confessing to the crimes, never confessed to that one while he was in the process of coming clean. The logic is tortured and unconvincing. But if one assumes the opposite tack, that DeSalvo was being fed information by the police to clean up the crimes so that they could move on, then it becomes very obvious why DeSalvo didn't confess to that crime: the police didn't want him to. They had already hung that one on somebody else.

These arguments present as coherent and logical the outcomes of a judicial process that was, in reality, chaotic and confused. "The police" and "the prosecutors" included people who had opinions all over the map. Some wanted to prosecute DeSalvo for the Stranglings, some wanted to investigate further, some thought he had nothing to do with the case, and some wanted to disbar Bailey for the way he had represented DeSalvo.

If Albert DeSalvo Wasn't The Boston Strangler, Who Was? Bill James Investigates

My opinion. F. Lee Bailey was a publicity-hungry young attorney who was building a name for himself by getting involved in high-profile crimes, and the Boston police played him. Albert DeSalvo wanted to confess to these crimes, and some of the police went along with it for their own reasons. Bailey was then able to present himself to the public as the clever lawyer who had cut a deal to end the Boston Strangler case, keeping his client off the streets but out of jail.

Everybody got what they wanted out of the deal. The police got rid of an unsolvable case that was draining money and blocking careers. DeSalvo, although he grew unhappy with the deal, got to be a famous important criminal rather than the anonymous lowlife that he really was. Bailey, who was already somewhat famous because of the Sam Sheppard and Carl Coppolino cases, became a lot more famous; he wound up with his own network TV show.

The only thing was, no one got to the truth.

If Albert DeSalvo Wasn't The Boston Strangler, Who Was? Bill James Investigates

Excerpted from the book Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James. Copyright © 2011 by Bill James. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.