Boston Strangler, a new Keira Knightley drama that began streaming on Hulu today, picks up a serial killer cold case that still haunts many true crime aficionados to this day. This series of brutal murders in the early ’60s, in which at least 13 women were strangled to death with their own clothing, is considered by many to be unsolved after a suspicious confession from the so-called killer didn’t quite add up.
The infamous killings have already been adapted for the screen in the 1968 movie, The Boston Strangler, starring Tony Curtis. But 2023’s Boston Strangler, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, is less interested in solving the mystery and more interested in shining a light on the two women who first broke the story of the case.
Ruskin, a Boston native, had grown up hearing about the Boston Strangler. “But I didn’t really know anything about the case,” Ruskin told Decider in a recent Zoom interview. “I started reading all that I could. There were all these aspects of the case that were not covered in the 1968 Tony Curtis movie.”
But a new way into the story didn’t click for him until he watched a brief interview with journalist Loretta McLaughlin on TV. “I discovered that she was one of the first reporters to break the story and that she actually gave the Boston Strangler his name,” Ruskin told Decider. “And I love journalism films.” Just like that, Ruskin had his way in. Here’s how the screenwriter and director dove into the case and adapted the Boston Strangler true story for the screen.
Is Boston Strangler based on a true story?
Yes. Hulu’s Boston Strangler movie is based on the true story of the Boston-based murders of 13 women in the early 1960s. Most of the women were sexually assaulted before they were strangled to death with their own clothing.
What is the Boston Strangler true story?
The Hulu film centers on real-life investigative reporters Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Carrie Coon), who wrote a four-part series about the serial killer in the Record American (which years later merged and converted to the tabloid, the Boston Herald) in 1963, and gave him his infamous named: “The Boston Strangler.”
Not much has been recorded about McLaughlin and Cole’s role in these high-profile murder cases, so Ruskin had to do some investigating of his own. “I read Jean Cole’s obituary [Cole died in 2015, at the age of 89] and it mentioned that she had two daughters,” the director explained. ” I looked them up on Facebook. One of them had a Facebook profile, and she had one photo. And in the picture, she had her arm around an old friend of mine!”
As it turned out, Ruskin’s friend was Cole’s granddaughter, and she happily introduced Ruskin to both Cole and McLaughlin’s families. “I was able to get a real sense of who these women were and how they approach their work. And the more I learned about them, the more I grew to admire them.” Though McLaughlin died in 2018 at the age of 90, Ruskin was able to speak to her children to get a sense of her life and personality. “These women had really demanding careers, and were really ambitious and talented journalists,” Ruskin told Decider. “There were not a lot of women in these positions. Newsrooms were male-dominated environments.”
The families also gave him access to old photographs of Cole and McLaughlin, and Ruskin “tracked down everybody I could who was either around during that period, or in a newsroom, or was related to people investigating the case. I found some journalists who had worked with Loretta and Jean, their careers had overlapped. I was talking to everybody that I could talk to and reading everything I could.”
How accurate is the 2023 Boston Strangler movie to the true story?
Though some changes were made to the true story in order to make a more efficient and entertaining Hollywood movie, Ruskin said that many of the details in Boston Strangler are true to life—right down to the headlines atop McLaughlin and Cole’s articles.
“All of their stories about the Boston Strangler were online,” Ruskin told Decider. “So I was able to read everything I was able to read stories they did before and stories they did after. It was incredibly instructive, hearing their voice—how they wrote how they characterized what they were discovering. Some of the headlines were pulled right from the paper. Keira has some voiceover in the film, where you hear what she’s actually writing, and some of that was pulled directly from their stories, too.”
That said, Ruskin also made a few changes for the sake of storytelling, the biggest of which was Alessandro Nivola’s character, Detective Conley. Conley is not based on a single real-life detective, but instead is a composite of several detectives who worked on the Boston Strangler case. “There were a couple of detectives, who were these really forward-thinking guys, who were very interested in what Loretta and Jean were uncovering,” Ruskin said. “[Conley] was a composite of some of them.”
Ruskin added, “I felt a tremendous responsibility to try and get it right. These were real people who left real families behind.”
Was the Boston Strangler ever caught?
After McLaughlin and Cole wrote their 4-part investigative series in 1963, a suspect named Albert DeSalvo (played by David Dastmalchian in the movie) was arrested after several surviving victims of so-called Boston Strangler attacks identified him as their attacker. DeSalvo eventually confessed to all of the murders. In 1967, DeSalvo was sentence to life in prison.
However, there were inconsistencies in DeSalvo’s confession. He briefly escaped from prison, and when he returned to maximum security, he recanted his previous confession. In 1973, DeSalvo was stabbed to death and murdered in prison by a gang member. All of this led to theories that DeSalvo was not responsible for all of the murders, and that the killer at least partially responsible for the killings may still be at large.
Who is Daniel Marsh from Boston Strangler?
“Daniel Marsh” is a pseudonym given to a suspect in the Boston Strangler case who was a mentally unstable ex-Harvard student with a history of domestic abuse. The suspect was a real person, but his real name has not been made public. In other media covering the case, he is often referred to as”David Parker.”
The suspect was never physically connected with the murders, but his move from Boston to the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area in Michigan coincided with a copycat murder that took place in the Michigan area, years later. That said, a different suspect was later booked for the Michigan murders.
The 2023 Boston Strangler posits that he is, perhaps, the lead suspect in this so-called unsolved case. “We gave him a unique pseudonym,” Ruskin told Decider when asked about Daniel Marsh. “Somebody wrote a book solely about him as the suspect. So he’s been widely covered. We didn’t make anything up on that scale. We condensed some time. and tried to tie some threads together. But we pulled from real suspects who were reported on at the time, and covered in much of the writing about this case.”
Who was the real Boston Strangler?
While we will never know for sure, the most likely theory seems to be that there were multiple killers, including Albert DeSalvo. That’s the theory that the 2023 Boston Strangler movie gets behind, and it’s the theory that Ruskin says he himself believes.
And for true crime fans who want to dig into the case on their own, Ruskin recommends the 2017 podcast “Stranglers,” which you can find on Apple Podcasts. “They pulled from transcripts of confessions that people lots of doubt around,” Ruskin said. “The ‘Stranglers’ podcast is a great place to start.”
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