A headline yesterday from the weblog of the inestimable Radley Balko reminded me of the ongoing scandals regarding crime evidence laboratories in Massachusetts and with Attorney General Martha Coakley (loser, n. a Democratic US Senate candidate from Massachusetts beaten by a Massachusetts Republican). (These scandals were mentioned here previously). These particular scandals are apparently limited to cases involving the War on Some Drugs. Even if that is the case, they are hardly irrelevant to the latest reports (and their extent) in the ongoing trials of the individuals (Mary Sullivan et. al.) and their families (Sullivan, Sherman, et. al.) who did not receive anything resembling justice in the interminable, stranger-than-fiction parade of inanity that is the “Boston Strangler” case.
In the 1960s, American culture was not insignificantly different from American culture now. While the institutions (universities; art museums; courts and other government departments, offices, and organs staffed and run by professionals educated in the humanities; media outlets; et. al.) were very much under the influence (though to a lesser extent than they are fifty years later) of a modern and “postmodern” European-influenced intellectual zeitgeist that has not changed in essence since the nineteenth century, the “regular people” on the street (including, in many cases at the time, police officers) were still reflective of a better, American, justice- and common-sense oriented past. A few years earlier, the Superman television series (as well as countless other works of popular culture, from Mickey Spillane’s novels to television series starring Robert Stack and Raymond Burr) proudly promoted the ideals of “truth, justice, and the American way,” and meant it. Not-so-intellectual Americans, their minds and attention spans not yet destroyed by “whole language, “ the “look-say” method of learning to read, and eMpTyV Networks, flocked to stylized epic films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music. Rock and roll stars like Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys exuded a musical, melodic sensibility and sophistication (not to mention sartorial eloquence, to borrow their fan Elton John’s phrase) that most punk rockers and rappers could not begin to understand. About a decade later, when a president of the United States was accused of misconduct that would pale in comparison to some of his successors, Americans demanded his impeachment, and he resigned in disgrace. Police were more interested in actually “protecting and serving” Americans more than government, they were more concerned with fighting crime than ratcheting up arrests and fines of “crimes” without victims, and they often put themselves at serious risk before endangering bystanders or mindlessly shooting innocent “suspects.”
The contemporaneous cops are not the villains in the “Boston Strangler” case. A perusal of previous installments in this series, and a perusal of Susan Kelly’s TheBoston Stranglers, will prove that to an interested reader. The police at the time were not fooled by Albert DeSalvo’s false confessions, nor did they pretend to accept them for reasons of expediency. The respective police departments (the Boston Police Department, the Cambridge Police Department, the Lawrence Police Department, and the Salem Police Department) did their jobs well (the way most of H.G. Wells’s Eloi believe today’s cops do their jobs) , and inductively adduced evidence to build cases against better suspects for the disparate murders in each department’s own jurisdiction. The contemporaneous media, at least one contemporaneous administrative figure, and at least one defense attorney, however, have some answering to do.
Writers and lawyers (especially at the time) tend to be more intellectual, and more educated, than the general population (though one would not necessarily get that impression from reading the writing of reporters covering the “Boston Strangler” case at the time). Like most people, writers and lawyers (though perhaps to a lesser extent at the time) tend to be conformists who unquestionably absorb (whether consciously or subconsciously) the principles (including the self-refuting principle of opposition to principles) they are directly and indirectly taught. What were they taught?
In general, they were taught the dominant post-Enlightenment (i.e., Endarkenment) intellectual trends: in metaphysics, metaphysical dualism and the primacy of consciousness; in epistemology, irrationalism, the supremacy and superiority of unreason (faith or feeling), and the replacement of Aristotelian reason with Kantian “pure reason” and Hegelian “dialectical reason;” in ethics, altruism and collectivism (the subordination of the individual, including individual crime victims, to the group or collective); and in politics, statism and authoritarianism (the subordination of the individual, including individual crime victims, to the state and its authority).
To be brief: after Immanuel Kant killed the Enlightenment with the publication of his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, intellectuals in the West rejected an integrated, Aristotelian world view of reason and individualism. For a few reasons (partly because the terms “reason” and “individualism” and “freedom” were still popular and marketable to a public that held them as vague, woozy ideals and did not really understand them), the intellectuals (until fairly recently) continued to claim fealty to those ideals: Kant was an advocate of “pure reason,” which, unlike Aristotelian reason, was divorced from reality and the world of sense perception and was limited to internally consistent, immanent mental manipulations; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel posited a “dialectical reason” and averred that contradictions are built into reality and reason, rejecting Aristotle’s Laws of Identity and Non-Contradiction; and individualism was a superficial matter of self-expression, not a metaphysical fact with ethical and political implications—the primary unit of reality was mankind or society (to which freedom alone applied), in which the individual is a semi-real fragment subordinated to a fundamental whole. The latter is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism, an American pseudo-individualism which supplanted the Enlightenment individualism of the founding fathers in the minds (such as they were) of post-Enlightenment American intellectuals. For decades in the nineteenth century (and beyond, to this day), such views were hammered into the numb skulls of university students and cultural figures. [Cf. Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels: The End of Freedom in America (New York: Stein and Day, 1982) or Hicks, Stephen R. C., Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Rev. Ed., no city: Ockham’s Razor Publishing, 2011) as expository supplements to reading the original sources themselves. A good source for condensed excerpts of Kant and Hegel is Beardsley, Monroe C., ed. The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (New York: The Modern Library, 1960). For antipodal antidotes, I recommend Adler, Mortimer J. Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (New York: Touchstone, 1978); McKeon, Richard, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941); Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991); and Rand’s own numerous works. ] This cultural trend developed, in America, into pragmatism.
Pragmatism has been described by supporters and detractors alike as the only American contribution to philosophy. It is American in terms of its geographical origins and its embrace of the emotional, empiricist, "practical," and materialist sides of the false dichotomies of reason versus emotion, rationalism versus empiricism, theory versus practice, moral versus practical, and idealism versus materialism, respectively, but it is essentially a rehash of Kantian and Hegelian European philosophy. It is certainly antipodal and antithetical to America and Americanism (and has been integral in destroying both). (One Internet commentator, whose name I have forgotten, remarked that Pragmatism is actually the least “pragmatic” philosophy, but the meaning and etymology of the term “pragmatic” is a subject for another time.) In short, its tenets are that reality is a whirling, Heraclitean flux of transient phenomena molded into shape by a collective consciousness (which precedes that reality); man is primarily an actor, not a thinker; that an idea is a plan of action; that the purpose of an idea is to remove obstacles from an actor’s path (for the moment, which is about all that the pragmatist recognizes); that the consequences of an idea cannot be known in advance but only after the “plan of action” has been effected; and that principles and abstractions are harmful and/or illusory because they do not deal with the complexities of the immediate moment. It is a philosophy that explicitly exhorts expediency and unthinking action while denigrated and castigating principled thought. (Progressive education, pioneered by the arch-pragmatist John Dewey, dispensed with logic, thought, and abstractions and promulgated a militantly anti-conceptual, percept-oriented form of learning devoid of subject matter, curriculum, rules, and individual consciousness in favor of “freedom,” pragmatic “life skills,” group identity, and “social consciousness.”) (It occurs to me that if a pragmatist or fellow traveler were to read this in the midst of his daily routine of flux surfing and myopic, concrete-bound contingency obsession, its abstract “monism” would have raised his hackles paragraphs ago, and his progressive education stunted attention span would have caused him to stop reading, his eyes glazed over, a few sentences past that.)
Pragmatism (and progressive education) took root in America around the end of the nineteenth century and became the vanguard. They were bludgeoned into the brains of university students and intellectuals for decades and generations. While the general public (including police at the time) were generally insulated from the corrosive effects of pragmatism (and progressive education had not yet completely disintegrated their minds), that was not the case for the administrators, lawyers, and journalists. It is a certainty that the likes of F. Lee Bailey, Strangler Task Force leader (and future Massachusetts Attorney General) John Bottomly, and the reporters of the local and national press at the time were thoroughly immersed in pragmatist doctrines (and those of pragmatism’s forerunners and influences). (Most of those that were not immersed in them directly immersed themselves indirectly, by professional association, by the osmosis that occurs in every culture and subculture.)
Did F. Lee Bailey believe DeSalvo was “the Boston Strangler”? To this day, he apparently insists it. However, what kind of reasonably intelligent individual, familiar with the following facts (as Bailey was, or should have been), would have believed that?
1. No physical evidence placed DeSalvo at any of the crime scenes. (This was certainly true until 2013, and it is probably still true—see above and below.)
2. Physical evidence at some of the crime scenes tended to exonerate him (including cigarette butts that DeSalvo, as a nonsmoker, could not have left).
3. No eyewitness in the case could identify him.
4. Despite his vaunted eidetic (photographic) memory, which several people (including his antagonist prison psychiatrist, Dr. Ames Robey, marveled at), DeSalvo’s confessions are riddled with errors (see below)—the kinds of errors that a killer with a normal (or even below normal) memory would not have made (particularly one who desperately wanted to be known as a killer).
5. In regards to Mary Sullivan: DeSalvo (during his first interrogation) did not appear to know about the particularly barbaric atrocity inflicted on Sullivan with a broom handle (despite the fact that even author Gerold Frank acknowledged “it was common knowledge on the streets”). Someone had apparently filled him in on this common knowledge before his second attempt at confessing to Sullivan’s murder.
6. Also in regards to Sullivan’s murder, DeSalvo claimed that he bludgeoned Sullivan over the head and raped her. The autopsy report contradicted those claims.
7. DeSalvo, a nonsmoker, did not explain why Salem cigarette butts were found in Sullivan’s apartment. (Sullivan and her roommates did not smoke Salems.)
8. The semen stains found on Sullivan’s blanket reportedly contained no spermatozoa. DeSalvo, a virle man who fathered at least two children, could not have left them.
9. A constellation of evidence implicates another suspect in Sullivan’s murder (including the fact that he apparently never became a father).
10. The conflicting m.o.’s, criminal signatures, and natures of the disparate victims strongly pointed to multiple killers (DeSalvo claimed to be responsible for them all).
11. DeSalvo had multiple motives for falsely confessing.
12. DeSalvo was never charged with homicide, and virtually no cops believed he was a killer.
Bailey, one of the most overrated mountebanks in the history of that fallen profession, insisted he openly identified DeSalvo as “the Strangler” in court in an unrelated assault trial so that he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity and placed in a mental hospital. DeSalvo was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Whatever Bailey’s motives, Bailey profited from his association with DeSalvo, taking the money he promised him from the sale of his life story to Gerold Frank and Twentieth Century-Fox. Bailey may have seen an opportunity to eschew principles (such as justice and fidelity to one’s client’s interests) and make a killing (if you’ll pardon the pun). His actions (including those in future cases) certainly comport with pragmatism.
John Maynard Keyes (the economist and kindred spirit of pragmatism) famously remarked, “In the long run, we are all dead.” In the long run, contra Keynes, Bailey is still alive. He not only lost this case, but he famously bollixed the defense of Patty Hearst. He was eventually disbarred. Pragmatism is hazardous to health, short- and long-term.
More important than the defense attorney in this case are the actions of some of those who claimed to act in the interests of society. One passage in Susan Kelly’s book explicitly describes one insider’s view of the decision-making process of Republican Strangler Task Force leader John Bottomly. Did Bottomly believe DeSalvo was “the Strangler”? He certainly thought that the young man whom I call Robert Greene was a viable suspect in the murder of Mary Sullivan, and transcripts of his interrogations with DeSalvo strongly imply he did not believe the criminal. (He asserted that he doubted a grand jury would “buy his story.”) According to the aforementioned insider, the Republican Bottomly (in a classic example of Republican Party pragmatism) thought he knew the identity of the killer or killers, knew that they would be incarcerated for a very long time, and thought he could save taxpayers the cost of a trial. (He also loudly trumpeted his role in “catching the Boston Strangler” in future political races and profited handsomely when he served as a consultant to Twentieth Century-Fox’s fiction film on the case.) His pragmatism may have done more to occlude justice in this case than anyone else’s (other than DeSalvo’s, anyway). Before his death, he was disgraced after it was discovered that scores of thousands of dollars of bonds were missing from his office. In the long run, Bottomly was dead, but he still apparently suffered the consequences of his amoral pragmatism anyway.
DeSalvo? He lied (and obstructed justice) because Bailey told him he would be convicted of unrelated “Green Man” crimes (which was true) and would spend decades in prison (which was false). He was told that if he “confessed,” he would be found not guilty by reason of insanity. (He would also profit from the sale of his life story.) He was found guilty of the “Green Man” crimes and sentenced to (essentially) life in prison (the length of his sentence was due entirely to his false confession in the more heinous crimes) . Bailey (and others) profited off of his “story,” but he didn’t. He was murdered in prison in 1973, at the age of forty-two (in an incident apparently unrelated to the “Strangler” case). DeSalvo was dead in the relatively short run, but his pragmatism has victims that are very much alive, decades later.
The contemporaneous press? I know little about the writers and editors of the newspaper accounts I have read (aside from the fact that they could not write or edit well). For whatever reason, they decided to downplay the evidence exonerating DeSalvo and report to the public (a public who put undue trust in them to investigate facts and report truth) that there was only one “Strangler” and DeSalvo was he. Perhaps they were indolent, and thinking about the truth, and reporting it, would have taxed their dull minds. Perhaps they believed they could sell more newspapers. Perhaps they believed there was a “greater good” in mollifying the public that the “killer” was behind bars and that the criminal justice system (which was still generally accurately named back then) “worked.” Perhaps more than one of the above motives applied to the professionals. However, the facts in this case were clear enough that even journalists should have understood them. A much likelier explanation: they were pragmatists. (Pragmatism, while it had not yet completely penetrated the minds of the general public, had infiltrated “cultured” Americans.)
Their readers at the time were generally common sense oriented (far more than they are now). However, they believed (with more justification than their counterparts today) that the reporters and editors were honest, competent people like them. Most of them were too busy (in the days when America was still essentially a free and prosperous country) earning an honest living, sedulously applying themselves to industry and productivity, to look into such affairs themselves. After all, it wasn’t their job.
Today’s media (it is no longer confined to the press, which is going the way of Aristotelian philosophy and the rest of Western civilization) is incomparably worse, and they have unstated hiring requirements that filter out those who asktroublesome questions (including those who cast any doubt on the propriety ofbumptious, presumptuous, intrusive, destructive government or even, at thispoint, the honesty and competence of legitimate branches of government).
Decades passed, and authorities who knew all of the facts enumerated above (and then some, including the fact that private DNA tests exonerated DeSalvo and implicated the prime suspect in Sullivan’s murder) decided to surreptitiously obtain DNA from DeSalvo’s nephew and compare it to DNA from the Sullivan crime scene. What does it say about the honesty and competence of authorities (leaving aside the issues with Attorney General Martha Coakley and the Massachusetts state crime labs) who would not first compare it to the prime suspect’s DNA? Is there reason to believe they are interested in truth, or are they interested in something else? What does it say about the honesty and competence of today’s fourth estate that they are neither asking the questions I am asking nor reporting on the discrepancies between the private and public DNA tests? John Bottomly’s successors (in more ways than one) have announced that DeSalvo’s DNA places him at the crime scene and that he “probably” committed the other murders (which they conveniently cannot investigate because they claim there is no more usable DNA evidence). How could the same man commit multiple murders that were obviously committed by multiple individuals to every honest investigator at the time? And what kind of news media would report the DNA results with the headline “Questions Answered” (as one television station did) when it is obvious that such announcements raised far more questions (some of which I have raised) than they have answered?
Retired Salem Police Department Lieutenant John Moran, who was certain he knew the identity of the killer in the one “Strangler” crime that took place under his jurisdiction (but lacked the evidence to arrest him), told Kelly, “There are a lot more killers walking the streets than behind bars.”
If one understands the state of American culture over the last several decades, it is not difficult to see why.