The Boston Strangler’s homicidal mania and Ben Affleck’s career aren’t the only abominations incubated on the cobblestoned streets of Massachusetts:
forty years ago a serial killer prowled the Cradle of Liberty,
his riotous, high-pitched giggles almost but not quite drowning out the screams of his prey.
Boston Police Department switchboard, 1:30am, June 16th, 1969.
The caller’s voice boasted a Boston accent thick as clam chowder:
“My dear, at the corner of Washington and Kneeland Streets in a construction site
there’ll be a man down in the water, dead.”
When the operator asked the caller’s name he identified himself only as “The Giggler;”
chortling like a maniac, he hung up the phone.
(A recording of the phone call can be heard here.)
Despite its reputation as a hotbed of sexual repression
Boston of yore tolerated a small oasis of pornography emporiums and nudie bars on a desolate strip downtown;
dubbed the Combat Zone,
it was Beantown’s version of Times Square—although like all things in Boston it was smaller,
As promised, when patrolmen surveyed the location the anonymous caller had cited—an intersection smack dab in the Combat Zone’s seedy center—the officers did indeed
find a male corpse submerged in a water-filled ditch,
his skull crushed.
The decedent was Joseph Breen, age thirty-four, an employee of the Brookline Water Department.
The former marine had begun his evening drinking with friends at the Novelty Bar,
an establishment The Boston Globe described as
“a rundown joint in the neon-lighted Combat Zone,
where some people drink beer directly out of the bottle because they have a hunch it’s safer that way.”
The Novelty featured shuffleboard courts in addition to its panoply of more lascivious delights,
and during the course of the evening Joe Breen struck up a match with a dark-haired stranger
his friends would later describe as “pudgy.”
Engrossed in the game with his chubby new chum,
Joe Breen opted to stay behind when his friends decamped
to visit the watering hole across the street—at 2am as the bars were closing
his friends returned to the Novelty but Joe Breen and his shuffleboard partner were nowhere to be found.
Assuming he’d gone home
Breen’s companions departed, unaware their friend was at that very moment
exiting the Combat Zone not in a taxicab
but a body bag.
An undercover police officer and one of the friends present on Joe Breen’s final pub crawl
staked out the Novelty for a time,
eager to question the man last seen with the victim;
the mystery shuffleboarder never reappeared,
however, and eventually detectives moved on to other ventures.
As the name implies, there was no shortage of violent death ripe for investigation in the Combat Zone.
Not all crime in Boston was confined to the city’s miniature Sodom and Gomorrah;
six months later, on December 26th,
nine-year old Kenneth Martin was reported missing—a third-grader at Saint Ambrose School,
he’d last been seen near South Station, the city’s major transportation hub.
Twelve days passed and Kenneth Martin’s fate remained a mystery;
then on January 6th an anonymous tipster contacted the BPD call center and said the boy’s body could be found in one of the tunnels beneath the station.
At the time law enforcement failed to connect this phone call to the giggle-filled tip which had led them to Joe Breen’s body the previous summer.
South Station is a labyrinth,
and it took searchers two days to find Kenneth Martin’s body stuffed in a canvas sack
in one of the station’s subterranean passageways—the boy had been choked to death,
a length of twine wound around his neck several times and pulled tight enough to cause a permanent groove.
No indicia of sexual assault were present,
and Kenneth appeared to have been killed shortly after he went missing.
Kenneth had occasionally earned extra pocket change resetting pins at the South Station bowling alley
and was thus well-known to the staff.
(Boston strip clubs had shuffleboard courts and the city’s transportation hub had bowling lanes—truly, the 1970s was a time of incongruous pairings.)
One of the alley employees remembered he’d last seen the murdered boy in the company of another Kenneth,
Kenneth Harrison, an unemployed cook who occasionally bunked down in one of the station’s many unoccupied offices.
Detectives soon learned Harrison, age thirty-one,
had hopped a train to Providence, Rhode Island the previous day.
Certain the financially-strapped Harrison hadn’t checked into the Ritz-Carlton,
intrepid BPD detective Jack Daley traveled to Providence and canvassed the local fleabags;
in a stroke of luck the investigator soon spotted the suspect idling on a street corner.
Returned to Boston for interrogation,
Harrison eventually admitted he’d killed Kenneth Martin
but claimed to have no memory of the event—-drunk out of his mind,
he’d been chatting with the boy in an abandoned office when he was suddenly struck with an overwhelming
“urge to kill.”
Next thing he remembered was waking up the following morning next to Kenneth Martin’s throttled corpse—or that was Harrison’s story, anyway.
Stashing the boy’s body in an out-of-the-way passageway to prevent discovery,
Harrison said he eventually hightailed out of town, but not before phoning in the corpse’s location to the authorities.
Yet though the circumstances of Kenneth Martin’s death had been laid bare
Harrison’s confession was not yet complete:
“As long as I’m here I might as well tell you about a few more,” he told his incredulous interrogators.
Harrison’s killing spree had begun two and a half years earlier,
on May 24th, 1967.
While working as a cabdriver he’d offered a ride
to six-year old Lucy Palmarin,
a South Boston schoolgirl
en route to purchase candy at a local sweetshop.
It’s not entirely clear how
the girl ended up in Harrison’s taxi,
but stranger-danger wasn’t as well publicized
in the 1960s
and as a recent émigré from Puerto Rico
Lucy’s English was spotty—we have
only Harrison’s word on the matter,
but she allegedly
entered his taxi willingly.
After a quick jaunt around the neighborhood
Harrison parked his cab on a bridge overlooking the Fort Point Channel, site of the Boston Tea Party.
As the pair exited the vehicle he motioned for Lucy to clamber onto his back for a piggyback ride;
seized by a sudden homicidal impulse,
instead of settling the child on his shoulders he pivoted and threw her off the bridge into the watery abyss below.
Lucy’s body was found five weeks later, on May 24th, entangled in pilings near the shore;
amazingly, despite the well-traveled nature of the location
no one spotted Harrison dumping little Lucy in the drink like overtaxed tea,
and her death was labeled accidental.
Clearly there was something about the Fort Point Channel that beckoned Harrison’s dark impulses;
eighteen months after Lucy’s death, on November 26th, 1969,
he was walking across this very same bridge when he spotted seventy-five year old Clover Parker
slipping and sliding on the icy pavement—though he was no Boy Scout,
Harrison offered to usher her across.
As they plodded along the snow-covered span the familiar homicidal urge began to build,
and halfway across he snatched the frail septuagenarian’s cane,
“punched her up,”
and then tossed her over the guardrail into Boston’s famously dirty water.
Unbelievably, despite the fact that Harrison had committed two completely unplanned murders
on a public road in broad daylight he again escaped notice;
as was the case with Lucy Palmarin,
Mrs. Parker’s death was deemed accidental by the medical examiner,
her facial bruises mistaken for post-mortem injuries.
Mrs. Parker’s death was never even mentioned in the media—the only way Harrison could’ve known the circumstances of her passing is if he was present at the scene.
It’s unclear if he giggled during his first two murders, but number three was a chuckle-fest;
Kenneth Harrison had been Joe Breen’s final shuffleboard partner.
After the pair had left the Novelty they’d argued over the price of a bottle of whiskey and cab fare,
not in the mood to haggle,
he attacked his new acquaintance,
bashing him in the head with a large rock
and rolling his body into a water-filled ditch at the Combat Zone construction site.
An ex-marine, Joe Breen was no frail old lady or schoolchild—he fought hard for his life,
but every time he attempted to surface
from the muck
Harrison pummeled him anew,
and eventually Breen, his skull fractured,
Harrison then made his mirthful call to law enforcement.
Four corpses to the wind,
Harrison’s homicidal soliloquy was not yet finished;
on January 28th, 1966 one of the Combat Zone’s hobo hotels had burned to the ground.
Eleven people died in the Paramount fire,
and more than fifty were injured—at the time the conflagration had been blamed on a gas leak.
Harrison, however, revealed he’d set the blaze for the firebugs’ version of “shits and giggles”—he just wanted the pleasure of watching the building burn, he explained.
Interestingly, Harrison was never indicted for the Paramount Hotel inferno,
and the Boston Fire Department’s website still lists gas as the blaze’s precipitating factor;
call me a cynic,
but I can’t help but wonder if the impetus for keeping Harrison’s arson confession hush-hush was financial—gas companies have far deeper pockets than unemployed cooks,
and by the time of Harrison’s admission any lawsuits resulting from the fire would’ve been well on their way to being settled.
Finally, with a total of fifteen victims accounted for, the Giggler’s conscience was clear.
He was tried for Kenneth Martin’s murder first;
although his attorney claimed Harrison was too drunk to achieve the mens rea necessary for first degree murder—the lawyer described the basis of the crime as “one of drink”—the jury disagreed:
on November 18th, 1970
Kenneth Harrison was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
As prosecutors prepared to try Harrison
for the murders of Joseph Breen, Lucy Palmarin and Clover Parker a deal was struck.
Realizing that like colonial patriot Nathan Hale, he had but one life to give to his country,
Harrison pleaded guilty to second degree murder in each case,
receiving three life sentences with the possibility of parole
to run concurrently with his life sentence without parole for the murder of Kenneth Martin.
Though he’d been sentenced to hard labor at Walpole State Prison
Harrison was first sent to Bridgewater State Hospital—site of the infamous Fredrick Wiseman documentary
Titicut Follies—in a bid to regain a little sanity.
There he idled for nearly two decades,
passing his days toiling in the hospital kitchen—a peculiar work assignment,
as a man plagued by sudden homicidal impulses seems a poor choice for a job working around knives.
On April 21st, 1989, his sanity apparently restored,
Harrison was scheduled to leave Bridgewater to begin his stint in the Massachusetts state prison system;
unwilling to leave the asylum that had become his home,
he instead opted for early check-out:
the day before his transfer the Giggler was found dead in his cell,
having ingested a lethal dose of Elavil,
an antidepressant medication.
The laughter was over.
I’m fascinated by Harrison’s apparent affection for Bridgewater State Hospital;
as depicted in the film Titicut Follies the hospital was a minor league Auschwitz,
a place of torment and misery and death.
The documentary is centered around the inmates’ annual talent show
(Titicut is the Native American name of a nearby river),
and as you’d expect,
a stage frolic featuring the talents of the criminally insane is surreal spectacle—imagine an episode
of The Sonny and Cher Show stage-directed by Ed Wood,
with Cher played by an axe murderer in drag.
There’s no record of whether Harrison ever participated in the Follies, but I like to believe he did;
and until someone tells me otherwise,
I choose to believe his talent was stand-up comedy (insert maniacal giggle here).