Terror in the neighborhood

albert desalvo

Albert DeSalvo is escorted by law enforcement officials after being captured following his escape from Bidgewater State Hospital in 1967. Photo by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) -Strangler Bureau, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have a fascination with serial killers.

When I tell people this, there are usually two reactions. The first is a half-serious step back, as if I were the one plotting mayhem. The second usually includes a moment of uncomfortable silence, a raised eyebrow and a nervous smile.

“Why?” I am asked.

There is no easy answer but there is one simple reason. During my senior year as an undergraduate at Northeastern University, I was looking for electives to fill out my schedule and enrolled in an Introduction to Sociology class with professor Jack Levin.

Levin looked slightly kooky himself with a bushy mustache, a wild mane of curly gray hair and eyes that darted around the room. He spoke of sitting in a prison cell and speaking with Charles Manson about the seven murders for which he was found guilty of conspiring to commit. He talked about the notorious Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, who was convicted of 48 murders but admitted he may have committed nearly twice that many. But it was his discussion of the fear that gripped this city when the sun went down and the Boston Strangler was roaming the streets back in the early 1960s that really hit home.

77 Gainsborough St., Boston. Photo by Steve Daly.

77 Gainsborough St., Boston. Photo by Steve Daly.

315 Huntington Ave., Boston. Photo by Steve Daly.

315 Huntington Ave., Boston. Photo by Steve Daly.

Albert DeSalvo, a loner from the neighboring city of Chelsea, eventually confessed to being the Strangler and was convicted of murdering 13 women in the Boston area, though evidence, including DNA, linked him to just one, the last. Two of those murders occurred in buildings on the Northeastern campus.

The Strangler’s first victim, Anna E. Slesers, 55, was found by her son on June 14, 1962, in her third-floor apartment at 77 Gainsborough St., across the street from St. Ann’s Church, now Northeastern’s Fenway Center. Slesers, a seamstress who worked in a shop near the Boston Garden, had arrived home alone just two hours earlier.

Six months later, the Strangler’s seventh victim, 20-year-old Sophie Clark, was found on Dec. 5, 1962, in her apartment at 315 Huntington Ave., several floors above what are now the popular eateries Boston Shawarma and Temptations. Clark worked as a medical technician during the day and took night classes at Carnegie Institute of Medical Technology on Beacon Hill.

The Strangler would go on to kill six more times, before DeSalvo, who some still believe was incapable of committing all 13 murders and merely sought the notoriety that resulted from the crime spree, was arrested in October 1964. He was found stabbed to death in 1973 in the state prison in Walpole, Massachusetts. In July 2013, DeSalvo was definitively linked by DNA to the death of Mary Sullivan, the Strangler’s final victim.

For many, the legend of the Boston Strangler and his connection to the Northeastern campus have been lost in the passage of time. But 50 years ago, female residents along Huntington Avenue – and many other areas of the city – were paralyzed by fear.

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