Keira Knightley is propping up her iconic silk sleeves and taking on the Boston Strangler, a Deadline exclusive reveals. The Pirates of the Caribbean alum is playing investigative reporter Loretta McLaughlin in a hardboiled Hollywood retelling of the Silk Stocking Murders from 1962 to 1964, in which 13 women were raped, stabbed, strangled, and killed by the eponymous Boston Strangler in Massachusetts. The true-crime drama is written and directed by Matt Ruskin of Crown Heights fame, with Ridley Scott and Kevin Walsh of Scott Free and Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara of Lucky Chap Entertainment executive producing. The film, also called Boston Strangler, will start shooting in December.
The crime feature starring Keira Knightley traces the blood-spattered origins of the Boston Strangler murders, a series of home break-ins from June 14, 1962 to January 4, 1964 that resulted in the deaths of at least 13 single women from the ages of 19 to 85. The victims were routinely raped and strangled with either a belt or nylon stockings (hence the name, Silk Stocking Murders), but were also stabbed, as in the case of 69-year-old Mary Ann Brown and 26-year-old Beverly Samans. 85-year-old Mary Mullen was the only Boston Strangler target to die from a heart attack; the man reportedly grabbed her when she suddenly crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
The Mad Strangler of Boston featured in Keira Knightley’s film boasted a consistent modus operandi: he would ask to enter the home under the pretense of being a well-meaning (or otherwise troubled) stranger or masquerade as a serviceman offering to conduct repairs within the building. In all cases, there were no signs of forced entry. Investigators rightly assumed victims knew their assailant, or at least trusted him, and unwittingly let him in. The Boston Strangler would then take advantage of his host’s generosity and attack them while at their most unsuspecting.
It was the Ted Bundy approach, preying on women’s protective and nurturing instincts, long before Bundy practically patented the MO. Despite the rather clinical, structured, almost repetitive nature of the killings, Boston police had little luck identifying the perpetrator. Some of the cases occurred outside of Boston, making the Boston Strangler’s activities infinitely more difficult to pin down and thus, unpredictable. Massachusetts Attorney General Edward W. Brooke was desperate enough to call a psychic, an unconventional decision for which he was slammed. Keira Knightley’s McLaughlin had a more empirical, deductive approach to the murders, however.
The first written document to call the Mad Strangler of Boston the “Boston Strangler” wasn’t a newspaper article. It was a four-part investigative journal by Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole, published in 1963 by Record American. McLaughlin had an expansive resume that included being the first to break the story of the Strangler to the media. And yet she was habitually ridiculed by peers for being an especially hard-nosed young woman in criminal justice, a field notorious for having a 10:1 male to female ratio. Like most jobs postwar, men dominated the workforce; women were only recently getting acquainted with the freedom to pursue their own careers, and had to contend with a male-oriented society that still refused, by sheer force of habit, to take them seriously. Since the Strangler case was essentially a man forcing his will on Boston’s female populace, Laughlin and Cole felt it was the duty of a woman to unravel the story herself and appropriate justice for the victims.
Being the Boston Strangler’s sole targets, women were the most affected by the incidents. Female residents either changed locks or purchased weapons in the event of an unlikely home invasion, but the killings only mounted. Many were forced to move away from Massachusetts. Law enforcement eventually arrested Albert DeSalvo, a military vet believed to have attacked a woman in similar fashion, only to change his mind and leave the house. He reportedly apologized to his victim. The young survivor’s description of her assailant led to DeSalvo’s capture, who was initially tried as The Green Man or The Measuring Man, for an entirely unrelated series of crimes. DeSalvo allegedly confessed to being the Boston Strangler while in jail. But Keira Knightley’s character, Loretta McLaughlin, did not believe the Boston Strangler was the work of one individual. She challenged the men strong-arming the system and insisted DeSalvo wasn’t acting alone. DNA evidence certainly supported the claim DeSalvo was the one and only Boston Strangler, but inconsistencies also abound.
Unfortunately, the blatant sexism of that era discouraged law enforcement from hearing McLaughlin’s pleas. DeSalvo was ruled the sole perp of the Silk Stocking Murders and he was sentenced to life in 1967. He escaped once but eventually turned himself back in. He was then moved to a maximum-security cell, where he would, himself, be stabbed to death in the infirmary by a mystery attacker. He only lasted six years in Walpole State Prison. In the end, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole failed to cap the Boston Strangler murders in a way that truly honored all the lives lost, though their efforts would radically change the way women were regarded in law enforcement for many years to come. McLaughlin passed away at 90 years old in 2018. She was a Boston Globe editor and an award-winning medical writer.
Boston Strangler stars Keira Knightley as groundbreaking crime reporter Loretta McLaughlin. The movie, written and directed by Matt Ruskin, will be distributed by 20th Century Fox. It currently has no release date.