You’d probably have to be a 19-year-old college sophomore to think going into a maximum-security prison where the guards were out on strike and the inmates were free to roam about was a good idea.
But back in March 1973, that’s who I was and that’s what I did.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of that occasion—which turned out to be a singular event in the history of American penology—I thought I might write about it, including my dinner with the Boston Strangler.
In 1973, I was a sophomore at Boston University studying journalism and political science. I followed the news closely—it was the time of Watergate, the winding down of the Vietnam War, and the draft. On March 14, in a Boston paper, I read about an unusual event about 30 miles southwest of town: At the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Walpole—the state’s highest security prison—all the guards had walked out on strike. Their grievances included work conditions as well as reforms planned by the state’s new, progressive correctional commissioner, John Boone.
In response, Massachusetts Gov. Francis Sargent readied National Guard troops to enter the prison. But a newly formed prisoners’ union urged him not to do so. The Guard, they argued, would have no experience dealing with prisoners; their armed presence inside the prison could spark violence. It was a persuasive argument, especially coming less than two years after state police and correction officers ended an uprising at Attica Correctional Facility by storming the prison; 43 people died, all but 10 of them prisoners.
Instead, the prisoners said they could govern themselves and urged that civilian observers be sent in to witness that order was being maintained.
The governor agreed and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, undertook to organize civilian observers. The news article I saw said volunteers would be picked up at a central Boston location, taken by bus to Walpole prison, and locked inside for 12-hour shifts. The first shift would start the next day at 7 p.m.
That struck me as a great adventure. I mean, why not be locked in overnight with murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals? When my roommate, Daniel H. Kolber, returned to our dorm room later that day, he agreed it sounded like a terrific idea and said he’d join me.
I don’t recall telling anyone else where we were going. I certainly didn’t call my parents to tell them.
The next day, Danny and I were on the bus to Walpole.
Who else was on the bus? Most of the volunteers, a Quaker organizer many years later told BBC News, were “social workers, clergy, lawyers, teachers, people, who had a common commitment to try to bring about some kind of reform and change, and who understood the stakes.”
Plus, two college sophomores.
At Walpole, we may have been being searched for weapons, drugs, and other contraband, but I don’t recall it. What I do remember is noticing that once we got by the outer perimeter of locked gates and inside the prison cell block to which we were assigned, all the internal gates and cell doors were wide open. The prisoners were just walking around.
Danny and I hadn’t eaten yet so the first thing we did was find our way to the prison cafeteria. Just as depicted in movies, there was a long serving line up front and then row after row of tables with benches. We went through the food line and then at random chose a table.
The other guys at our table asked who we were and why we had volunteered to be observers. We didn’t ask them why they were there.
After the meal, as we were getting up, one of the guys at the table—he was short with dark, wavy hair—introduced himself as Albert DeSalvo.
While already serving a life sentence for a series of rapes, DeSalvo in 1967 confessed to being the infamous “Boston Strangler,” responsible for the deaths of 13 women, ages 19 to 85, during the years 1962 to 1964. He was never tried for those crimes, and some questioned his guilt—no physical evidence linked him to the murders.
Doubters speculated he confessed for the chance to profit from the notoriety. But DeSalvo’s identity as the Strangler became widely accepted, even more so after release of the film, “The Boston Strangler,” starring Tony Curtis, in 1968. (A new film, also titled, “Boston Strangler,” starring Keira Knightley as the reporter who broke the story, is set for release on March 17, on Hulu.)
I don’t remember if I knew DeSalvo was held at Walpole, but even if I had, it was still startling to meet him. Danny and I said hi to DeSalvo; we all shook hands. He invited us to come visit him in his cell later that evening.
As the three of us walked from the cafeteria, another inmate shouted, “Hey, DeSalvo, I want you to meet my mother-in-law!”
After dinner, Danny and I split up and explored separately. I don’t remember being afraid—and, of course, there were no cell phones then so if anything went wrong, we were truly on our own—but I was astonished by the whole thing.
Hours later I spotted Danny sitting in a large, open cell talking with six or seven inmates. One was telling how he was able to arrange for some of the guards to receive valuable gifts. Another, when I said I was a journalism student, asked if I’d like to write his life story. “How’s your syntax?” he asked. I remember being so surprised that he used the term “syntax”—meaning the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. (Later, back at school, Danny told me he’d done some research in the library and was pretty sure the “syntax” guy and others in that cell were part of one of the leading organized crime groups in New England.)
Around midnight, Danny and I climbed to our cellblock’s top, third-level tier and there, just as he had earlier instructed us, we found Albert DeSalvo. He welcomed us into his cell.
About that visit, I remember three things.
First, DeSalvo took from a shelf a white shoe box that was filled with dozens or maybe even hundreds of small envelopes. They were of different sizes and colors. These, he said, were letters he’d received from women all over the country, some asking to be his girlfriend.
Second, DeSalvo opened a small box and showed us the contents. It was filled with choker necklaces. He said he made these in the prison workshop and sold them or gave them as gifts.
Third, DeSalvo gave Danny and me a printed or mimeographed copy of a poem he’d written, and signed it to us. It was called, “The Boston Strangler.” Danny still has it. He recently found other copies of the poem, also signed by DeSalvo, for sale on Ebay. “I still remember the last line by heart,” Danny recently told me. “It goes: “People everywhere are still in doubt/The Strangler in prison, or roaming about?”
The rest of that night I think we just wandered from cell to cell, meeting more prisoners. It wasn’t difficult to stay awake: We were 19 and this was one memorable all-nighter.
At 7 a.m. the prison gates opened, and Danny and I filed out with the other observers to board the bus back to Boston.
Volunteers continued observing at Walpole until May when a prisoner was burned alive in his cell. Observers witnessed this but were unable to prevent or stop it. Soon after, the governor sent in armed guards. In one hour, they retook the prison. The next month, the reform-minded corrections commissioner whose proposed rule changes had triggered the guards’ walkout was forced by the governor to resign.
Thus ended a unique experiment in the history of prison management. Among the books and films made about the event are “When the Prisoners Ran Walpole,” a 2008 book by Jamie Bissonette, and “3000 Years and Life,” a 1970s documentary film.
In the 50 years since Walpole, Danny and I have often talked about our experience that night. He wrote me recently, “Do you realize that was the closest in our lives we ever came to being at a truly historic event, and we didn’t have any sense of it at the time?”
That’s true. We knew it was an unusual event, but that it would be written about, studied, and debated, we had no idea.
Danny has also said to me several times over the years, “Peter, do you realize some of those guys we ate with and talked to at Walpole are still there, in the exact same place, doing the exact same things?”
Maybe some, but not DeSalvo. Just seven months after our dinner with him and visit to his cell, DeSalvo was stabbed to death in the prison infirmary by another inmate. He was 42 years old.
And was DeSalvo really the Strangler? In 2013, his remains were exhumed to test his DNA against that found in seminal fluid in the rape and murder of 19-year-old Mary Sullivan, the Strangler’s 11th victim.
The DNA matched.