City of Fear: Photos From the Boston Strangler Era, 1963

Lighting a cigarette she could jam into an assailant's eye, a Boston student walks home with hatpin on her sleeve -- a deadly stilleto ready for fast thrust.
Art Rickerby—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Caption from LIFE. "Lighting a cigarette she could jam into an assailant's eye, a Boston student walks home with hatpin on her sleeve -- a deadly stilleto ready for fast thrust."
Art Rickerby
'60s

The recent news out of Massachusetts that police might be on the verge of solving the last of the Boston Strangler killings — using DNA collected from a relative of longtime suspect Albert DeSalvo — has suddenly dragged the notorious half-century-old murders back into the headlines.

DeSalvo, who confessed to 11 “Strangler” killings and two other murders in and around Boston between 1962 and 1964, was never charged in those crimes — although in 1967 he was tried for unrelated crimes, including rape, and received a life sentence. In 1973, he was stabbed to death after being transferred to Walpole State Prison from Bridgewater State Hospital in southeastern Massachusetts. In the years since his death, more than a few criminologists, journalists and law enforcement officials have expressed doubts that DeSalvo was, in fact, the Boston Strangler, citing (for example) the wide variety of ages and ethnicities of the 13 victims — most serial killers target a specific “type” of victim — as well as inconsistencies in his confessions.

Whether or not DeSalvo was the Strangler, however, what’s beyond dispute is the terror that haunted Boston — and especially the women of Boston — at the time, when first one woman, then another, then another was found sexually assaulted and strangled to death. Here, 50 years after “fear walked home with the women” of Boston, as LIFE magazine put it in a 1963 story on the “sex stranglings,” LIFE.com recalls that chilling era with a series of photos illustrating the alarm — and the determination not to be the next victim — that gripped countless women in cities and towns across eastern Massachusetts in the early 1960s.

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