Fact vs fiction: Boston Strangler — is it based on a true crime story?

Keira Knightley stars in the Hulu and Disney Plus thriller Boston Strangler
Keira Knightley stars in the Hulu and Disney Plus thriller Boston Strangler. (Image credit: Hulu)

Fans of true crime stories are in for a treat with the new film Boston Strangler, available on Hulu in the US and Disney Plus in the UK.

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin and produced by Ridley Scott, the tense thriller is based on the real-life search for a mystery serial killer, who prowled the streets of Boston, Massachusetts during the 1960s. Over a period of a year and a half, the murderer went undetected as he claimed the lives of at least 13 women.

Boston Strangler focuses on the hunt for the elusive murderer, which was led by Loretta McLaughlin (played by award-winning actress Keira Knightley), a reporter for the Record-American newspaper. McLaughlin was the journalist who broke the Boston Strangler story, along with her colleague Jean Cole, played by Carrie Coon.

The trailblazing pair embarked on a dangerous quest to unmask the strangler, putting their own lives at risk to get to the truth.

But how much of Boston Strangler is based on fact? Did the crusading McLaughlin and Cole identify the killer and bring him to justice? Here is everything you need to know…

Boston Strangler stars Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon as investigative journalist on the tail of a serial killer.

Keira Knightley and Carrie Coon play trailblazing journalists Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole. (Image credit: Disney Plus/Hulu)

Was the Boston Strangler a real-life killer?

Yes. The Boston Strangler was the name given to the murderer of 13 women in the Boston, Massachusetts area during the early 1960s.

Between June 14, 1962, and January 4, 1964, 13 single women between the ages of 19 and 85 were murdered in cities located in Boston (and more murders happened afterward, though it's debated whether they were committed by the same person). Most of the killer’s victims were strangled to death using their nylon tights.

All 13 women lived alone and were murdered in their homes. There was no sign of forced entry into the properties, which led police to conclude the victims must have let the assailant in.

Going on that hypothesis, it was assumed the killer was likely to have been working as some kind of delivery or maintenance man. The murderer was initially known as the 'Phantom Fiend’ or ‘Phantom Strangler’.

As the deadly attacks continued and gained widespread media publicity, terrified Bostonians purchased tear gas and new locks for their front doors. Some women are even thought to have moved out of the city in fear.

Is Boston Strangler based on a true story?

Yes, it is.

In 1963, Loretta McLaughlin, a lifestyle reporter for the Record-American newspaper, became the first journalist to connect the Boston Strangler murders. As the killer claimed more and more victims, Loretta began her own investigation into the crimes, aided by her co-worker and confidante Jean Cole. 

That same year, the pair wrote a four-part series about the killer, dubbing him ‘The Boston Strangler’. One of these stories caught the attention of District Attorney Edward Brooke, who met with Loretta and Jean to form a committee that would work with the police in sharing information.

The ladies faced significant challenges in their quest for the truth and found themselves stymied by the rampant sexism of the era. However, the duo were undeterred and put themselves at great risk to try and bring the homicidal maniac to justice.

Keira Knightley in Boston Strangler.

Loretta McLaughlin risked her life to unmask the Boston Strangler. (Image credit: Disney Plus/Hulu)

Are the lead characters based on real-life people?

Again, yes.

Loretta McLaughlin, who’s portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film, was an American journalist, turned author and newspaper editor. During the time of the Boston Strangler killings, Loretta worked on the lifestyle desk of the Record American newspaper.

She was the first reporter to connect the crimes and break the story about the serial killer. Furthermore, she continued to cover the case with her colleague, Jean Cole, despite facing pressure from the police and their editors to stop.

As Loretta and Jean dug deeper into the murders, they received death threats, harassing phone calls and even silk stockings tied in a bow, which was the Strangler’s signature.

Reflecting on portraying trailblazing Loretta, Keira Knightley told Deadline: “I’d always been a bit scared about making things like this. They always seemed to glorify the killer. A man who hunted women, being hunted by two women — that was an interesting take.”

Did the Boston Strangler ever get caught?


In October 1964, a stranger entered a young woman’s house posing as a detective and sexually assaulted her. The woman’s description of her attacker led the police to identify him as Albert DeSalvo, a 33-year-old Massachusetts resident who had a string of convictions for theft.

DeSalvo was not initially suspected of being involved with the killings, but after he was arrested for rape, he confessed he was the Boston Strangler to his prison cellmate, who then informed his lawyer.

The police were convinced of DeSalvo’s guilt because of the detailed descriptions he gave about the individual crime scenes — such as the color of particular pieces of furniture. He was also wrong about lots of other details.

There was, however, a lack of physical evidence that could link DeSalvo to the 13 victims. He was charged with his earlier crimes and rape and sentenced to life in prison in 1967.

Some people subscribe to the 'multiple killer theory' though, saying that it's unlikely one killer committed all the murders and that DeSalvo is just a scapegoat. There's also some evidence that multiple people committed the killings, so some are skeptical that the Boston Strangler was ever caught.

What happened to The Boston Strangler?

Incredibly, Albert DeSalvo broke out of prison the same year he’d been sentenced to life. He managed to elude the prison staff by disguising himself as a US Navy Officer.

His escape sparked a state-wide manhunt, but it all ended when DeSalvo turned himself in to the police a few days later.

Not wanting history to repeat itself, the killer was transferred to a maximum security prison. And that’s where DeSalvo remained for the next six years until he was stabbed to death in the prison’s infirmary, aged 42.

There was an investigation and trial into his murder, but no one was ever convicted.

Were Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole credited for breaking the story of the Boston Strangler?

Shockingly, no.

In an interview with Whisky Sunshine, actress Carrie Coon, who portrays Jean Cole in Boston Strangler revealed: "These women (Cole and McLaughlin) were so integral to breaking the case and to force the police departments to share information. And their names are never mentioned in association with it that was really shocking to me.”

Right from the start of their investigation, Loretta and Jean were convinced the killings were the work of an individual. This was based on their research, which included autopsy reports and interviews with the families of the victims. 

But many police detectives dismissed their theory, adamant that they were looking for multiple murderers.

Cole even covered Albert DeSalvo's trial in 1967.

Carrie Coon in Boston Strangler

Carrie Coon plays award-winning journalist Jean Cole. (Image credit: Hulu)

What happened to Loretta McLaughlin and Jean Cole?

After leaving the Boston Record American, Loretta McLaughlin went on to work as a science writer for Harvard University. She also held the role of executive director of public relations at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

She returned to journalism in 1976, as the medical news specialist for the Boston Globe. McLaughlin was a passionate advocate of health matters, particularly the AIDS crisis. In 1982, she published 'The Pill, John Rock, and the Church: The Biography of a Revolution', which was about the development of the birth control pill.

She died on November 23, 2018, aged 90.

Jean Cole was invited to become a news anchor for a Washington, D.C. television station, but turned down the opportunity as she didn't want to uproot her young family.

Cole had considerable success in her journalism career. She was named Woman of the Year in 1953 by the New England Women's Press Association for her expose on the abuse and deplorable conditions in nursing homes. 

Jean retired in 1981 and spent the rest of her life in Florida. She died in 2015, aged 89.

Is anything in Boston Strangler fictional?

Well, possibly — you see, there's still a lot of doubt that DeSalvo actually was the Boston Strangler, so it's hard to know for sure if the conclusion of the movie is fictional or not.

Boston Strangler lends a lot of weight to the theory that DeSalvo was just one of several murderers, implying that the so-called 'multiple killer theory' is correct. 

According to the movie, lots of different people committed the murders, copying the original ones to put the blame on the Strangler, and the movie points out all the reasonable doubt in the DeSalvo case.

Since we don't know for certain who the Boston Strangler is, it's hard to say if the movie adds major fictional elements.

Laura Morgan
Freelance writer

Laura has been a journalist for over a decade, writing about soaps, TV entertainment, fashion, beauty, and food. After graduating from university, she started her career working at a national soap and TV magazine. During her seven-year stint there she joined the cast of Emmerdale for a tour around the famous village, partied with soap stars at awards bashes, interviewed her acting idol David Suchet, and sat in the front row of Strictly Come Dancing

Her heart lies with the soaps, and her all-time favourite character has to be EastEnders' Pat Butcher - no one rocked a big earring quite like her. She's also a huge fan of detective crime dramas, particularly old school Inspector Morse, Endeavour, and adaptations of Agatha Christie's Marple and Poirot. When she's not writing, she loves a spot of second-hand shopping and going on adventures with her young son.