Earle Leonard Nelson


Earle Leonard Nelson

A.K.A.: "The Gorilla Killer" - "The Dark Strangler"

Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Rape - Necrophilia - Mutilation
Number of victims: 22 - 25
Date of murders: 1926 - 1927
Date of arrest: June 10, 1927
Date of birth: May 12, 1897
Victims profile: Women (mostly landladies)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: USA / Canada
Status: Executed by hanging in Winnipeg, Canada, on January 13, 1928

Earle Leonard Nelson aka The Gorilla Killer (May 12, 1897 - January 13, 1928) was an American serial killer.

Nelson's childhood was a difficult one. His mother and father both died of syphilis before Nelson turned two. He was subsequently sent to be raised by his maternal grandmother, a devout Pentecostal.

Around the age of 10, Nelson collided with a streetcar while riding his bicycle and remained unconscious for six days following the accident. After he awoke, his behavior became erratic and he suffered from frequent headaches and memory loss. When Nelson was 14, his grandmother died and Nelson went to live with his aunt, Lillian, and her husband.

As a young man, Nelson was a daydreamer and a compulsive masturbator. He began his criminal behavior early, and he was sentenced to two years in San Quentin State Prison in 1915 after breaking into a cabin he believed to be abandoned.

Later, he was committed to the Napa State Mental Hospital after behaving oddly and erratically during his short stint in the United States Navy. He managed to escape three times from the hospital before hospital staff stopped trying to find him.

Nelson began engaging in sex crimes when he was 21 years old. In 1921, Nelson attempted to molest a 12-year-old girl named Mary Summers but he was thwarted when she screamed and brought attention to Nelson.

He was committed once again to the Napa State Mental Hospital. After several escapes and attempted escapes, Nelson was released from the Napa mental institution in 1925 and started on his killing spree early in 1926. He killed his first victim, Clara Newmann on February 20, 1926, and two weeks later, he claimed his second victim, Laura Beal.

Nelson's victims were mostly landladies, whom he would approach on the premise of renting a room. Nelson often studied his worn Bible, using it to keep his victim at ease and off-guard around him. Once he gained their trust, he would kill them, almost always by strangling them, and engage in necrophilia with their corpse.

He would then hide the body, often leaving the corpse under the nearest bed. On at least one occasion, Nelson mutilated the body of his victim. Nelson slept with the body of 14-year-old Lola Cowen under his bed for three nights, despite the fact that she had been mutilated in a manner reminiscent of Jack the Ripper.

By using false names and moving on quickly after he committed the murders, Nelson avoided capture for eighteen months. Nelson claimed victims in several West Coast cities (including San Francisco, San Jose, and Portland, Oregon), throughout the upper Midwest, and finally in Canada. Police were hampered in their efforts by the fact that serial murder was a relatively unknown crime. They were also slowed down by a number of mistaken arrests. Four days after the murder of Laura Beal in San Jose on March 2, 1926, police arrested an Austrian national named Joe Kesesek because he was "acting suspiciously" and wore similar clothes to those worn by the killer. Stephen Nisbet was held in jail for two days after the murder of his wife Mary. Two days after the murder of Isabel Gallegos on August 19, 1926, a Russian immigrant named John Slivkoff was arrested but later released.

Nelson was arrested twice in Canada, where his murder spree ended. He was first arrested on June 15, 1927 in Wakopa, Manitoba, not long after murdering two women in Canada: 14-year-old Lola Cowan, found decomposing in a room Nelson had rented, and housewife Emily Patterson, who was found by her husband underneath the bed. Nelson was incarcerated at the local jail after giving police the alias Virgil Wilson. He escaped that evening from the jail in Wakopa. However, Nelson made the mistake of hopping the same train that was transporting members of the Winnipeg police, and was recaptured and arrested again the next morning by an officer from the Crystal City, Manitoba police department.

His trial began on November 1, 1927 in Courtroom Number One of the Manitoba Law Courts Building. Though Nelson's lawyers attempted to portray Nelson as mentally ill and therefore not responsible for his crimes, the jury found Nelson guilty of the Winnipeg slaying of Emily Patterson, found strangled underneath her own bed by her husband; who had knelt by the bed to pray for her safe return after finding her missing on the afternoon of June 9. Patterson had been Nelson's fifth victim in just 10 days.

Nelson was hanged at the Vaughan Street Jail, Winnipeg at 7:30 am on January 13, 1928.

Earle Leonard Nelson

In the annals of U.S. History, Earle Leonard Nelson holds an infamous bookmark. He has the first known American serial sex killer of the twentieth century.

In February, 1926, Nelson began an eighteen-month rampage from one end of the country to the other and on up into Canada. On his way, he took out no less than *twenty-two* women -- a record that would remain unbroken for half a decade after.

Orphaned as a wee lad (when his parents both succumbed to our friend syphilis), our hero was taken in and raised by his mother's family. He was a withdrawn, moody little kid with bizarre personal habits. One odd example was setting off to school each day in neat, laundered clothes and returning in the foulest of rags (as though he's swapped clothes with a derelict). His behavior patterns became even more twisted after a bike accident cost him a severe head injury.

By his early teens, he was a regular at the local brothels and bars of San Francisco's rough n' tumble Barbary Coast. A petty thief, Nelson was arrested for burglary at eighteen and sentenced to two years in San Quentin. America had just gotten into WWI when Nelson emerged. He enlisted in the Navy, but refused to do anything but lie on his cot and rant about the "Great Beast Of Revelations" -- so was confined to an institution for the duration of the war.

Discharged in 1919, Nelson, then twenty-two, met and married a woman forty-four years his senior and proceeded to make her life a daily hell. Shortly after she left him, he attacked a twelve-year-old girl and was once again locked up in an asylum. Let *back* out in 1925, he soon embarked on his true life's mission.

Starting in San Francisco and working his way up the coast to Seattle, he headed eastward. In his wake, the papers dubbed him the "Gorilla Man" -- a nickname that had less to do with his appearance (tho' he was no Clark Gable) than with the animal savagery of his attacks. His targets were mainly middle-aged or elderly landladies who had placed "Rooms to Let" ads in the paper, Nelson (who could be charmer when he needed to be) would show up and ask to see a room. Once alone with his prey, however, he would udergo a classic Jekyll/Hyde transormation...

Typically, he would choke the women to death, commit postmordem rape, then stash the corpses in strange hiding places. One of his victims was stuffed unceremoniously into an attic trunk, while others were crammed into basements and behind furnaces. The final victim was discovered by her husband *as he knelt for his nightly prayers*. His bride was crammed beneath thier bed.

Earle Leonard Nelson

BORN : May 12, 1897

DIED : January 13, 1928


"I only do my ladykillings on Saturday nights"
Earle told the police after his arrest.

Nelson was an odd-looking man, with the receding forehead, protuding lips, and huge hands that led to his nickname, 'The Gorilla Murderer'. He had been born in Philadelphia in 1897, though his mother died of venereal disease contracted from his father when Earle was less than one-year-old, and he was fostered out to his aunt Lillian.

She was a devoutly religious woman, a trait which she instilled into her impressionable young nephew, with whom religion would become a Bible-thumping obsession.

At the age of ten Nelson suffered a severe head injury when he was hit by a moving streetcar, and this trauma left him with physical and mental problems throughout his life. In fact as early as 1918, Nelson was admitted to a mental hospital after attempting to rape a neighbour's daughter.

He absconded several times'and was readmitted; the following year he contracted a marriage which was fated to last a mere six months; he was now calling himself Roger Wilson.

Between February 1926, and June 1927, as the Gorilla Murderer, Nelson went on a rampage which left twenty-two known victims dead, all women, all boarding-house landladies, all raped and strangled.

The first victim was found in the attic of her rooming-house in San Francisco on 20 February 1926; sixty-year-old Clara Newman had been displaying a 'Rooms to Let' sign in her downstairs window, Earle Nelson had come to inquire about one.

Between this brutal attack and his last, in Winnipeg, Canada, Nelson managed to evade justice by continually moving around and changing his name.

Earle Nelson's known victims

20 February 1926 Clara Newman 60 San Francisco

2 March 1926 Laura E. Beale 60 San Jose

10 June 1926 Lillian St Mary 63 San Francisco

24 June 1926 Anna Russell 58 Santa Barbara

16 August 1926 Mary Nesbit 52 Oakland

19 October 1926 Beatrice Withers 35 Portland

20 October 1926 Virginia Grant 59 Portland

21 October 1926 Mabel Fluke ? Portland

15 November 1926 Blanche Myers 48 Oregon City

18 November 1926 Wilhelmina Edmunds 56 San Francisco

24 November 1926 Florence Monks ? Seattle

23 December 1926 Elizabeth Beard 49 Council Bluffs

? December 1926 Bonnie Pace 23 Kansas City

28 December 1926 Germania Harpin * 28 Kansas City

27 April 1927 Mary McConnell 60 Philadelphia

30 May 1927 Jenny Randolph 35 Buffalo

1 June 1927 Minnie May 53 Detroit

Mrs Antwerp (a lodger) ? Detroit

3 June 1927 Mary Sietsema 27 Chicago

8 June 1927 Lola Cowan 14 Winnipeg

9 June 1927 Emily Paterson ? Winnipeg

* Nelson also throttled Mrs Harpin's eight-month-old baby.

Earle Leonard Nelson

On 8 June 1927, Nelson crossed over the border into Canada and hitch-hiked to Winnipeg, where he took a room in a boarding-house in Smith Street. Here Nelson broke his pattern and the landlady was unharmed; instead Nelson murdered fourteen-year-old Lola Cowan and, as part of a regular formula, hid her body under a bed in a spare room where it was found four days later.

In a separate incident on the evening following Lola Cowan's murder, William Paterson arrived home to find his wife Emily missing, and later to discover a suitcase rifled and money stolen from it. Fearing the worst, Paterson telephoned the police, anxious over his wife's whereabouts, but no accidents had been reported. A religious man, Paterson knelt by his bed to pray for strength before retiring, and that is when he found his wife, who had been raped and bludgeoned to death before being pushed under her own bed.

It was calculated that Mrs Paterson had been killed at approximately eleven o'clock that morning; shortly afterwards, Nelson walked into a second-hand clothes shop where he sold items stolen from the Patersons. Then he visited a hairdresser's for a shave where the barber noticed blood on Nelson's hair.

Two days later he was heading back to the United States, but that forty-eight hours had given the Canadian police time enough to circulate a detailed description of Nelson which was recognised at a post office in Wakopa when Nelson himself walked in.

On I November 1927, Nelson was tried at Winnipeg before Mr Justice Dysart for the murder of Emily Paterson. Nelson pleaded insanity as a defence, in which he was greatly supported by testimony from Aunt Lillian and his former wife but, after a four-day trial, he was found guilty and, on 13 January 1928, hanged at Winnipeg.

Although the victims listed in this account were certainly attributed to Earle Nelson, there is some reason to suppose that he was also responsible for a triple murder committed in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. Rose Valentine, Margaret Stanton and Laura Tidor were all landladies, all raped and strangled, and in two cases the body had been pushed under a bed.

This bio was taken from "The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers," by Brian Lane and Wilfred Gregg.

As a point of interest Earle struggled for over 11 minutes after his hanging begun.

For a good read on Earle Nelson check out Harold Schechters, "Bestial"

Name: Earle Leonard Nelson

Nickname: The Gorilla Killer, The Crusher

Location (of Kills): San Francisco, California and Seattle, Washington and throughout US and Manitoba, Canada

Number of Kills: 22

Gender of Victims: Women

Sexual Contact: Rape, Necrophilia

Types of Murder: Strangulation

In 1926, the murders started. In San Francisco, Earle Leonard Nelson would look for women advertising rooms to rent. Nelson would look at the room with the landlady, once alone inside the room with her, he would strangle her. He would then rape the corpse and hide the body.

Nelson continued his killing spree across the United States. Finally, with the police following him, Nelson fled to Canada. Nelson then killed two more people and was then arrested.

When in custody Nelson escaped, and twelve hours later he was back in prison. He was later sentenced to death, and was hung later that year.

Nelson, Earle Leonard

Born in Philadelphia on May 12, 1897, Nelson was orphaned at nine months of age when his mother died of advanced venereal disease. Raised by an aunt whose religious zeal bordered on fanaticism, he was described as "quiet and morbid" during early childhood.

At age ten, while playing in the street, he was struck by a trolley and dragged fifty feet; the accident left him comatose for six days, with a hole in his temple, resulting in headaches and dizziness that grew progressively worse. Near the end of his life, Nelson suffered from pain so severe he was sometimes unable to walk. Aside from headaches, there were other side-affects from Nelson's accident. His moods grew more oppressive, broken up by manic periods in which he took to walking on his hands or lifting heavy chairs with his teeth.

He read the Bible compulsively, underlining numerous passages, but also shocked his aunt by talking "smut" and spying on his female cousin as she stripped for bed. When not preoccupied with voyeurism or the scriptures, Nelson spent his time in basements, relishing the solitude and darkness.

On May 21, 1918, Earle was charged with dragging a neighborhood girl into one of those basements, attempting to rape her.

In court, it was revealed that Nelson had been called for military service and rejected as insane by the Naval Hospital Board, but he was convicted regardless and sentenced to two years on a penal farm. His third escape attempt was finally successful, on December 4, and Nelson would remain at large until the spring of 1921.

On August 12, 1919, posing as "Roger Wilson," Earle married a young schoolteacher. Their relationship was short-lived, with Nelson's sexual perversions and obsessive jealousy driving his wife to the point of a nervous breakdown after six months. He called upon her in the hospital, and there attempted to molest her in her bed, before the staff responded to her screams and drove him off. Arrested as a fugitive, he staged another break from prison in November 1923.

The next two years of Nelson's life are lost, but sometime in the interim between his flight and reappearance, Nelson made the move from rape to homicide. In sixteen months, from February 1926 to June 1927, he claimed at least twenty-two victims, preying chiefly on widows and spinsters who took in a mild-mannered boarder, impressed by his manners, his smile and the Bible he carried.

On February 20, 1926, Earle rented rooms from Clara Newman, 60, in San Francisco; she was strangled and raped the same day. Following the identical murder of 60-year-old Laura Beale, in San Jose, newsmen began writing stories about "the Dark Strangler," but their suspect remained elusive. On June 10, Nelson was back in San Francisco, where he raped and strangled Lilian St. Mary, 63, stuffing her body under a bed. Mrs. George Russell was the next to die, in Santa Barbara, on June 26.

On August 16, Mary Nesbit suffered an identical fate in Oakland. California had become too hot for Nelson, and he sought a change of scene, selecting Portland, Oregon, at random. On October 19, Beata Withers, 35, was raped and strangled, her remains deposited inside a trunk.

The next day, Nelson killed Virginia Grant and left her corpse behind the furnace in a house that she had advertised for rent. October 21 found Nelson in the company of Mable Fluke; her body, strangled with a scarf, was found inside the attic of her home.

Police in Portland finally identified their man, but finding him was something else, entirely. (Interviews, conducted with his aunt, recalled tales of Earle's handwalking exploits, leading to his being christened "the Gorilla Murderer.") Nelson struck again in San Francisco on November 18, strangling the wife of William Edmonds.

On November 24, he strangled Blanche Myers in Oregon City, tucking her body beneath a bed in her rooming house. As police dragnets rendered the West Coast uninhabitable, Nelson moved eastward, hitchhiking and riding the rails. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, on December 23, he killed Mrs. John Beard, another landlady. Settling in Kansas City for Christmas, he strangled 23-year-old Bonnie Pace, rebounding on December 28 with the double murder of Germania Harpin and her eight-month-old child.

On April 27, 1927, Nelson strangled Mary McConnell, age 60, in his hometown Philadelphia. A month later, in Buffalo, New York, the victim was Jenny Randolph, 35. Moving on to Detroit, he murdered landlady Minnie May and one of her tenants, Mrs. M.C. Atworthy, on June 1.

Two days later, he strangled Mary Sietsorr, 27, in Chicago. Nelson feared police were closing in on him by now, and made a move to save himself that ultimately brought him to the gallows. Crossing the border into Winnipeg, Canada, he rented a room on June 8, 1927, and strangled Lola Cowan, 14-year-old daughter of his neighboring tenants, the same day.

On June 9, housewife Emily Patterson was found bludgeoned and raped in her home, her body hidden underneath a bed. Hoping to cash in on his last crime, Nelson stole some clothing and resold it at a Winnipeg second-hand shop. Spending his cash on a haircut, he aroused further suspicion when the barber noticed dried blood in his hair. Recognized from his wanted poster in a local post office, Nelson was picked up and jailed at Killarney; he escaped after picking the lock on his cell with a nail file, but he was recaptured twelve hours later, as he tried to slip out of town. Nelson's trial in the murder of Emily Patterson opened in Winnipeg on November 1, 1927.

Only two witnesses - his aunt and former wife - were called by the defense in support of Nelson's insanity plea.

Convicted and sentenced to die, he was hanged on January 13, 1928.

Before the trap was sprung, he told spectators, "I am innocent. I stand innocent before God and man. I forgive those who have wronged me and ask forgiveness of those I have injured. God have mercy!" In addition to his twenty-two known murders, Nelson was the leading suspect in a triple murder in Newark, New Jersey, during 1926.

The victims included Rose Valentine and Margaret Stanton, both strangled, along with Laura Tidor, shot to death when she attempted to defend them from their killer.

The Roaring 20's

For most people crime in the United States during the 1920s begins and ends with the Prohibition-related gangsters. Others, whose interest in the history of criminal activity is more versed, may point out that the Roaring 20s was the decade of thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, the Lindberg kidnapping and the always perplexing murders of the Rev. Edward Hall and Mrs. Eleanor Mills. Glamorous, shocking and unsolved crimes held the public riveted, and have gained immortality while other horrific events seem to have faded from popular culture.

It may have been a simpler time, but there was still plenty of crime news to keep the country reading their newspapers and listening to their radios. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables", the Purple Gang in Detroit and even the Teapot Dome Scandal all played well during the age of Jazz Journalism. In America, serial killing (the term would not even be coined for nearly 50 years) somehow escaped the public's fascination.

Across the Atlantic, Henri Landru, the French Bluebeard, who killed women for the love of money, ushered in the 1920s. The decade was closed by an even more terrible killer, Peter Kürten, the Düsseldorf Vampire, a maniac whose lust murders remain some of the most odious and bizarre crimes in the annals of homicide.

However, serial killing wasn't something reserved for the continent. North America had its share during the 1920s and none was more prolific than Earle Nelson, known at the time as "the Gorilla Killer." For more than a year, Nelson roamed the United States, seemingly able to slay at will, slipping into and out of boarding houses and suburban homes with impunity.

Also known as the Dark Strangler, his body count was in the high 20s, and unlike most serial killers, he rarely used a weapon. Nelson, it seems, enjoyed choking the life out of his victims. His prodigious strength earned him the nickname Gorilla Killer. Police began to think that like a real-life version of Edgar Allen Poe's Rue Morgue murderer, this killer was inhuman.

No normal human had the might to strangle a healthy, middle-aged woman to death and handle the bodies the way this killer did, the police and newspapers surmised. Only a specter could slip in and out of populated areas like this maniac, and only a monster would do the things to the dead that this killer seemed to enjoy doing. Nevertheless, when lawmen caught up with Earle Nelson, they soon found out that he was all too human.

Growing Up Bad

Criminologists who study serial killers have been able to identify many patterns and motives to help answer the question of why some people find it necessary to torture and kill as many of their fellow humans as they can. It is impossible to predict who will grow up to become a mass murderer, as we are dealing with human nature, but those who track these monsters have noted a number of characteristics that many killers share.

In Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, three of the nation's top serial killer profilers studied in excruciatingly minute detail the lives and crimes of 36 convicted and incarcerated sex killers.

The study revealed some consistencies among the murderers, wrote Robert K. Ressler, Ann W. Burgess and John E. Douglas. Psychiatric problems were present in many of the killers' families, most often involving aggression-related ailments. Drug and alcohol problems abounded. Negative relations with male caretakers were present in almost three-quarters of the men (all subjects in the study were male) and the families were more often than not transients.

As for sexual identity formation, three quarters reported sexually stressful events in their childhood; eight of 10 encountered pornography as children and 70 percent had particular fetishes or practiced voyeurism.

Ressler, Burgess and Douglas reported that parental involvement was not deterministic in predicting whether a child would grow up to be a serial killer, but in most cases, the parental influence in the child's life was negative.

Earle Nelson never had a chance to know his mother or father. He was just a little over 9 months old in 1898 when his mother died because of a syphilis infection she received from his father. There isn't much known about Frances Nelson, Earle's mother, except that she was apparently quite young when he was born. Earle's father, about whom even less is known, died about six months after his wife, from the same disease. The only thing he gave his son was the last name the boy would shed when he went to live with his grandmother -- Ferral. The name, a derivation of the word "feral", meaning "wild or untamed" would have an ironic prescience in life of the man who is called "The Gorilla Killer."

Nelson was raised in San Francisco by his grandmother, a widow, who had two pre-teen children of her own. She was a devout Pentecostal, and religion played an important role in the young boy's home life. Earle Nelson differed little from the subjects of Ressler's study. A dominant female presence was apparent in the formative years of two-thirds of the killers profiled by the three criminologists, and just under half reported that there was no father figure in the home by the time the child reached 12 years old. That is not to say that two-thirds of all children from single-mother homes or homes where the mother "wears the pants in the family" will grow up to kill, it merely points out that this is a consistent characteristic among serial murderers.

Earle's grandmother was a distant woman, overworked and weary of raising another child alone. She genuinely cared for her grandson, but from an early age he was a difficult child. He was at times hyperactive, and at other times, profoundly depressed. Growing up he cared little for hygiene and manners, despite his grandmother's attempts to raise a God-fearing young gentleman.

One of his most peculiar habits, according to his biographer Harold Schechter, was his style of eating.

"At dinner, he would drench his food in olive oil, put his face to the plate, and slurp up his meal like a caged beast at feeding time -- much to the disgust of his little tablemates, his Uncle William and Aunt Lillian," Schechter writes in Bestial, the story of Nelson's life and crimes.

The other children in the home began taunting him and calling him an animal. This, combined with the huge difference in their ages, distanced him from the other children in the home who acted as siblings but were, in fact, his aunt and uncle. This feeling of separation from siblings was another common trait found in the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. "Essentially, these early life attachments (sometimes called bonding) translate into a map of how the child will perceive situations outside the family," Ressler et al. wrote. "The multiple family problems we observed suggest inadequate patterns of relating...Thus, the possibility that most of the offenders experienced positive interactions with family members seems unlikely."

Besides his strange eating habits and bipolar personality, Earle demonstrated a number of other peculiar behaviors. He would often leave for school dressed in one set of clean clothes and return home wearing a completely different outfit, most of them much more shopworn and filthy than those he set out wearing.

He was obsessed with the Bible, although even as a child he failed to heed the Golden Rule or the 10 Commandments. He was expelled from grade school at 7 years old because of his incorrigibility. Among the other children, he was known as a loner, who was mostly withdrawn but whose temper when aroused was fearful and violent. More than once, an irate shopkeeper who had caught Earle stealing trivial items from his store summoned his grandmother.

At 11 years old or so, Earle was uncharacteristically showing off for a group of neighborhood youngsters on a bike he had inherited from his uncle. Racing in front of a streetcar, Earle was knocked to the ground when the trolley clipped the back end of the bike. He was rendered unconscious by a horrific head wound and spent the next week floating between awareness and delirium.

Whether this closed head injury would play a role in furthering Nelson's psychotic nature can only be speculated at, for after two weeks of recuperation, Nelson appeared to be "back to normal."

Descent to Madness

When Nelson's grandmother died two years after the great San Francisco earthquake, his aunt and her husband took in the 14-year-old, who had dropped out of school for the last time. Ten years his senior, Lillian was genuinely fond of her nephew, and like her mother, tended to overlook his eccentricities. Family, to her, was all-important, and up until the end, she stuck by her nephew despite his heinous crimes.

Earle passed through a series of menial jobs, keeping one until his strange behavior or laziness made it impossible to keep him on. A one or two-month stint at a job was a long stretch for the young man, whose work ethic was severely lacking. He would rarely finish an assigned task and he often just wandered off a work site, never to return. Just as he had as a young boy, Earle would often leave home in work togs only to return later in a completely different set of clothes. He never outgrew his rough temper and although she loved her nephew as family, Lillian was clearly afraid of the teen.

"He was just like a child, and we considered him like a child, and of course, we would never go too far with him, because there was always the fear of him," Lillian told a newspaper reporter when news of her ward's arrest for a series of murders reached San Francisco years later.

As a young man, Nelson once again shared many characteristics with the subjects of Ressler's study. He was a compulsive masturbator, a trait held in common with more than 80 percent of those serial killers interviewed. The only more common trait among the murderers was a tendency to daydream, something Nelson also did for hours on end. He reportedly had a voracious sexual appetite, admitting that he began frequenting the prostitutes near Fisherman's Wharf at the age of 15.

At the same time, Earle Nelson began drinking heavily, often disappearing for days at a time on alcoholic binges. He spent his money -- whatever he didn't turn over to his aunt for room and board -- on the most sensational and lurid literature of the day as his descent into madness accelerated. Nelson carried on conversations with invisible friends and enemies, was known to walk around the house on his hands and increasingly frequently came home battered and bruised, as if he had been in a fight.

Aunt Lillian, now raising two children of her own, as well as her mentally ill nephew, had given up trying to discipline the hulking teen and wavered between wanting Earle just to move out and her misguided protective nature toward her kin. From his unknown, but obviously illicit sources of income, Earle was a strong financial contributor to the household, albeit one whose lifestyle habits were undoubtedly more trouble than they were worth. Unable to openly confront her nephew, Lillian acted to protect her children as much as possible, but prayed for help to solve her familial problem. Earle took care of the situation on his own.


In the spring of 1915, Earle set out from his aunt's home on one of his aimless forays around the northern California area. As he grew, Earle became more restless and would disappear for days or weeks at a time without leaving any word as to his whereabouts or destination. He financed these jaunts by petty crime and the occasional odd job.

This time, in need of money and food, Earle broke into what he thought was an abandoned cabin, only to be surprised on his way out by the returning owner. He fled into the nearby woods but was tracked down by a posse and arrested. Caught red-handed, it was an open-and-shut case, and Earle was quickly tried and convicted of burglary. Just a little older than 18, Earle was sentenced to two years in prison and sent to San Quentin prison.

His time behind bars passed without note, and he emerged two years later not rehabilitated in the least. The United States was slowly being drawn into the Great War in Europe, patriotism surged in many a young man, including Earle Leonard Ferral, who enlisted in the U.S. Army, hoping to serve "over there."

He went to prison as Earle Nelson, but joined the U.S. Army as Earle Ferral, but it didn't take long for him to realize he was not cut out for military life. Ordered to stand guard one cold night, Nelson went AWOL and headed to Salt Lake City, Utah.

However, Nelson wasn't suited to be a Mormon and once again he enlisted in the military: this time in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to be a cook in San Francisco, Nelson lasted just over a month in the Navy before he deserted. The chores, Schechter reported, were too onerous.

He bounced around the Bay area for two months before trying the military once again, this time as a medical corpsman. Here, Nelson began to exhibit the signs of mental illness that would later turn into violence. He deserted again, because “burning about his anus bothered him," Schechter wrote. In 1918, Nelson returned to the Navy and immediately became a problem. He refused to work; instead, he spent his time reading the Bible and prophesizing about the Apocalypse. Within a month, he was committed to the Napa State Mental Hospital. Nelson was 18 years old.

In his intake interview, Nelson told of a bizarre lifestyle.

He admitted to masturbating daily between the ages of 13 and 18, "but not since then," and was an alcoholic who had not had a drink in the last seven months. Blood tests showed evidence of gonorrhea and syphilis, which Nelson said he contracted before his 16th birthday. He displayed a preoccupation with religion and God, and a proclivity to flee. Twice Nelson escaped from Napa in the 13 months he spent there, earning him the nickname "Houdini" from the other patients, and twice he was captured and returned.

The third time he escaped, in 1919, the medical personal at Napa didn't even bother to track him down. They simply discharged him from the military and wrote down in his record that he had "improved." This assessment was as wrong as the one in his folder that reported he was "not violent; homicidal; or destructive."

Earle in Love

Nelson turned up at the home of Aunt Lillian, who dutifully took him in and helped him find a job as a janitor at St. Mary's Hospital near San Francisco. It was there that Nelson found the woman of his dreams, a woman who resembled his grandmother. She was Mary Martin, 58, a shy old maid who worked in the housekeeping department of the hospital. Reclusive and introverted, she attracted Earle because of her latent maternal instincts.

It didn't take long for Earle to begin talking of marriage, and it didn't take long for Mary to accept his proposal. Nevertheless, before she would marry him, she wanted him to agree to have a Catholic rite wedding. Earle didn't object in the least.

"Always open to varieties of religious experience, he had no objection to a marriage conducted according to the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church," Schechter wrote.

While Mary might have entered into the marriage expecting the relationship to be a convergence of equals, what Earle had planned is unknown. He clearly had no expectation of having a marriage in the normal sense of the word. Consciously or unconsciously, he forced Mary into the role of a domineering mother-type, while he played the part of the disobedient son. Even Mary, with her old-school Catholic upbringing of marriage for better or worse, until death do us part, considered her relationship with Earle to be "a trying experience."

He had a mania for changing clothes, usually from a neat and clean outfit to something horribly dirty or inappropriate -- a golf outfit including plaid plus fours or a sailor suit, for example. He even made his own clothes from Mary's dresses, although his skills as a tailor were laughable.

Schechter reports that Nelson refused to bathe, practiced intolerable table manners and he had an insatiable sex drive. Every night he required release, and on the nights when Mary was unwilling or unable to participate, he openly took matters into his own hands as Mary, a devout Catholic raised to believe masturbation was sinful, lay in shock, disgust or embarrassment beside him.

At first Nelson was demonstrably affectionate with Mary, but soon his affection crossed the line to possessive jealousy. He fumed when she talked to any other man, including her brother, and would become violent -- the attacks directed at inanimate objects, not his wife -- when he thought she was being overly friendly.

Nelson's selection of Mary Martin as a wife is interesting considering the type of victims he ended up choosing as a killer. In many cases the victims were similar to Mary in the sense that they were spinsters or widows and older. The resemblance to the first domineering woman in his life, his grandmother, was similar in most cases.

Serial killers for the most part are made, not born. They develop over time because of mental disease or defect and environment. A sexual predator like Earle Nelson is likely to choose victims that have some symbolic meaning for him. In some cases, researchers have found, killers will attack victims who resemble an unattainable sexual object like a woman who scorned them once, or a family member who was out of reach because of cultural taboo. Others will lash out at victims who represent an oppressor, such as a domineering parent -- usually a maternal figure.

Equally common is the escalation of criminal activity by serial killers. What ends up being a violent homicide with sexual overtones usually begins as a fantasy in the killer's mind, according to noted criminologist Robert Ressler. The next step may involve play acting, such as finding a sexual partner willing to act out a role in the future killer's fantasy, or cruelty to animals, depending on the nature of the fantasy. The study noted above found hiring prostitutes and harming animals to be present in the lives of many convicted sex offenders.

For a time, perhaps, Mary satisfied Earle's sexual hunger, but obviously she soon became less and less desirable to Earle and he began looking elsewhere for ways to sate his demons. For more than two-dozen North American women, satisfying Earle Nelson's hunger would mean their deaths.

Over time, Earle descended further into madness. He suffered terrible migraines which no medicine or maternal care from his wife could ease. During one such attack, while he was at work, Earle fell from a ladder and struck his head on the ground knocking him unconscious. He was hospitalized, but fled the hospital after two days, his head wrapped in thick white bandages.

The head injury, the second of his life, further loosened his grasp on sanity and he began to see visions and hear voices, often of a religious nature. He became even more violent and paranoid toward his wife and for the first time, Mary began to fear him. It took some convincing, but eventually Mary told Earle she would not accompany him when he wanted to leave their home in Palo Alto after causing a scene with their employer. He left without her, but returned the next day begging her to take him back. Mary wisely refused -- he undoubtedly would have killed her eventually -- and Earle Nelson left to vent his anger someplace else.


Nelson's first attempt at murder was a dismal failure and was not in keeping with the modus operandi he would later adopt. In all likelihood he was reeling from his expulsion by Mary and in such a rage that any target he could find would do. He found his prospective victim playing inside her home on May 19, 1921. Pretending to be a plumber sent to fix a gas leak, Nelson was admitted to the home of Charles Summers by his 24-year-old son, Charles Jr. Nelson went immediately to the basement, where he found 12-year-old Mary Summers playing. Whether or not he knew she was there is unknown, but he immediately set upon the young girl and tried to strangle her.

Mary Summers fought back bravely and, alerted to Mary's screams, her elder brother rushed to the basement and met Nelson on the stairs. The assailant pushed Summers out of the way and fled the house with Summers in pursuit. They fought in the street, and finally Nelson was able to issue a staggering blow to Charles and while the young man lay stunned on the ground, Nelson managed to slip away between the houses.

The authorities scoured the neighborhood looking for Mary Summers' attacker and two hours later, managed to capture Earle Nelson as he rode down a quiet avenue on a trolley. Photos taken of Nelson after his arrest for her attack show a disheveled young man with many nasty scratches on his face. It didn't take long for Nelson's bizarre behavior to shock his jailers. On his first evening in jail, he plucked his eyebrows completely with just his fingernails and began howling about seeing faces on the wall.

By the time his wife was alerted to her husband's incarceration, Nelson had been transferred from the jail to the city hospital. There, Mary encountered Nelson lying tied to a bed wearing a straightjacket and complaining about the faces that were watching him from the wall. For the first time, Mary learned the truth about her husband. He was a lunatic who had been hospitalized once before, had a prison record and was a deserter from the military. Still she stuck by him and began involuntary hospitalization procedures in an effort to keep him from prison.

A month after he attacked Mary Summers, Earle was brought before a judge to determine his legal competency. Psychiatrists wrote that Nelson was "apathetic, eccentric, noisy, destructive and incendiary." Further, the examining doctors warned that Earle Nelson was "restless, violent, dangerous, excited and depressed." He was dangerous, the doctors warned, to "wife and self." Their conclusion was that Earle was "so far disordered in his mind to endanger health and person," whereupon the judge filed the commitment order writing that he was "dangerous to be at large." Earle was transported that very day back to the Napa State Hospital -- the place he had escaped from three times already.


In Napa for the second time, Earle Nelson was immediately diagnosed by his psychiatrist as a "constitutional psychopath with outbreaks of psychosis." Alert to his desire to escape -- he suffered from what doctors called "nomadic dementia" -- hospital officials would not let Earle roam the grounds without restraints. In the first two weeks of his incarceration, Earle tried twice to flee but never managed to get outside.

At first, thanks apparently to a treatment with anti-syphilis drug Salversan, Earle managed to improve slightly. His record for the first year of his stay at Napa showed he was cooperative and capable of performing menial tasks and carrying on normal conversation. He continued to show a religious mania; on Christmas 1921 Earle told his doctor he felt "a blessing on him." He also made a few half-hearted attempts to escape, but gradually the staff became more trusting of Nelson and he was allowed in certain areas without restraint.

However, the progress was short-lived. His case file shows that at around 18 months into his hospitalization he began to get agitated and melancholy. "Increasingly, the word quiet, which appears so frequently in the preceding entries, is supplanted by the more ominous word, restless," Schechter wrote. He began to refuse the necessary Salversan treatments and warned his doctors that he was getting ready to escape.

On November 2, 1923, he made good on his threat and fled Napa only to turn up at his aunt's house in the middle of the night. Lillian told the papers what her first encounter with Earle was like: "He had his face right against the glass with a horrible crazy hat on, and I let out one terrible scream because he looked so awfully insane," she said. "His eyes were just black, glaring at me, and the children rushed up to me and of course I opened the door because he was my own flesh and kin, and I loved him."

Lillian said she was scared to death and gave Nelson a set of her husband's clothes and urged him to run away. She convinced her nephew that it was unsafe for him to stay there, and he agreed, fleeing into the night. As soon as he was gone, Lillian called the police and the Napa Hospital to let them know Earle had been by.

He remained on the lam for two days before he was apprehended wandering the streets of San Francisco.

Taken back to Napa, Earle remained there for another 16 months, during which time no further entries were made into his record. Whether or not he improved was unknown, but four years almost to the day that he assaulted Mary Summers, Earle Nelson was released from the hospital. The only note in his file read "Discharged as improved."

Earle managed to convince his wife Mary to take him back, but it was only a matter of weeks before his "nomadic dementia" took over and he began to wander the Northwest. He also began to kill.

The Dark Strangler

Clara Newmann may have been frail for even a 62-year-old widow, but she apparently had a sharp head on her shoulders. She operated several boarding houses in the San Francisco area and also had large landholdings back east. Clara was known for her fastidious housekeeping and her no-nonsense approach to the renters who lodged in her boarding houses. She was strict, but fair, and no drinking men or sailors need apply to rent one of her rooms. She had a vacancy in the Pierce Street home where she resided and had placed a "To Rent" sign in the front window.

Earle Stanley Nelson, dressed in an uncharacteristically neat suit, approached Mrs. Newmann's front door and rang the bell. Clara herself opened the door and Nelson tipped his fine homburg to the lady. He introduced himself -- what name he used was never known -- and expressed interest in the vacancy. Clara, taken by the courteous stranger let him in and in doing so, voluntarily admitted her killer into her home.

It was a chilly Saturday morning in February and Nelson had no way of knowing whether anyone else was in the home at the time. In fact, Clara Newmann's nephew was home alone, having seen his wife and daughter off to the store and a movie matinee. Sitting in his second-floor apartment, he felt a chill in the air and grumbled to himself once again about the finicky furnace in the basement.

Merton Newmann Sr. headed down the stairs and on his way to the basement passed the kitchen that was filled with the pungent smell of frying sausage. He looked inside expecting to see his aunt, only to find a frying pan with a sausage cooling over an extinguished flame. Something must have interrupted Aunt Clara, he thought to himself and continued through the kitchen to the basement door.

In the hallway, he saw a large gentleman with a hat pulled low over his eyes and his coat collar turned up, opening the front door as if to exit.

"Can I help you?" Merton asked, surprised by the dark stranger. He couldn't get a good look at the man, except to see that his skin tone was dark Caucasian.

The man, startled, said "Tell the landlady I will return in an hour. I wish to rent the bedroom." He then turned without waiting for a response and left. By the time Merton got to the front door to look after the man, he had already made it down the steps and around the house and was gone into the cold morning air.

Merton fiddled with the furnace and returned to his bookkeeping chores in his room. Several hours later he wandered downstairs to see his aunt. As he reached the kitchen he saw that it was exactly as he left it several hours before, except the sausage was now sitting in a puddle of congealed fat. He inquired with the other residents about his aunt's whereabouts, but they were unhelpful.

The boarders began searching the house and soon happened on the corpse of Clara Newmann. Sources differ as to where she was found, with the more lurid accounts claiming she was found propped on a toilet seat, her housecoat up on her hips. Others said she was found in the vacant attic apartment, again her clothes bunched up around her waist. She was quite dead and had clearly been roughed up before she was murdered.

The autopsy conducted that evening revealed she had been strangled, most likely by bare hands. What was even more disturbing was a fact not shared with the press -- Clara Newmann had been sexually assaulted, but not until after she was dead.

The murder was dutifully reported in the papers but because this was the first homicide of its kind, police did not realize they had anything other than a run-of-the mill maniac on their hands.

A little over two weeks later, in nearby San Jose, a second woman was murdered under similar circumstances. She was also a rooming house manager, a married woman by the name of Laura Beal. A senior citizen, Mrs. Beal died in almost an identical way as Clara Newmann. Her husband, a real estate agent, returned home from work to find his wife missing -- a strange occurrence.

Again the borders began searching throughout the house and once again the victim was found nude from the waist down in a vacant apartment. Laura Beal had been strangled with the silk belt from her dressing gown. The garrote was tied so tightly around her neck the skin had been broken. Once again, a post-mortem revealed she had been raped after she was dead.

The papers immediately latched on to the fact that two women had died under the same brutal conditions and began trumpeting that a mysterious fiend was loose in the area. Countless tips flowed into police headquarters, but no leads of any significance appeared. The only descriptions the authorities had to go on were the brief glimpse Merton Newmann had of the dark stranger and a "sallow-faced man hurrying from the house" of Laura Beal, Schechter wrote.

Frightened as they were, it didn't take long for Bay-area residents to put the Dark Strangler, as the papers dubbed Nelson, out of their minds. Nearly a month went by with no leads and no sign of the killer. Police, reporters and the general public began to think that the maniac had fled for some area where he was even less known. They were wrong.

Room to Kill

With no sign of the killer, the story soon dropped off the front pages of the San Francisco newspapers, and the only mention of boarding houses and rooms to rent were in the classified ads on the back pages. This is where Earle Nelson found his victims, and that is how he found Mrs. Lillian St. Mary toward the end of March 1928. A widow with a grown son who lived at home, Mrs. St. Mary had begun taking in boarders to supplement her meager income. She had a number of vacant rooms when Earle Nelson came to call, and she was eager to show the large but friendly gentleman the apartment that had recently been vacated.

On their way up the stairs, Nelson told Lillian he had just moved to the Bay area and was looking for an inexpensive room because he was saving money to get married. Lillian opened the vacant second-floor apartment and stepped inside, talking about weekly rent and towels and what time dinner was served. Hearing a click like the sound of lock being set, she turned and in an instant Nelson was upon her, his thick hands easily fitting around her neck, throttling the life out of the unfortunate woman. If she tried to cry for help, no one ever heard her.

One of Mrs. St. Mary's other boarders was on his way up to his third-floor bedroom when he noticed the door to the vacant apartment was open. Stepping inside, he could see a woman's feet on the made-up bed. That was odd, he thought and he moved into the bedroom to see if something was amiss.

Lillian St. Mary lay on the bed, her eyes wide open and bloodshot. They bulged out as if she was still suffering from shock or fright. Her hair was disheveled, but she still wore her glasses, which led police to believe she hadn't put up much of a fight. Her clothes were torn and her dress was pushed up around her waist. Her legs were splayed open. The man didn't have to come any closer to see that Mrs. St. Mary was dead.

The post-mortem revealed that she had been strangled by a man's bare hands and that he had apparently sat with his full weight on her chest as he strangled the life out of her. After she was dead, her assailant raped her. He then neatly folded her overcoat and hat -- she had apparently been on her way out as he met her. Her hat he placed next to her head, her overcoat he slipped under her feet. The entire attack had been so quiet that the man living below the second-story room had never heard a thing.

The police knew the same man was responsible for all three killings, but again the only description they had was of a large, swarthy man. This time, a streetcar conductor had seen such a man acting strangely around the area of Mrs. St. Mary's boarding house. As the press began writing stories about the Dark Strangler, who could seemingly slip in and out of homes unnoticed. The police chief warned single women who rented rooms to be wary of any man who approached, and said never to show a room to such a man alone. It was only a matter of time, the chief said, before the police would have the fiend off the street.

A Phantom

Santa Barbara, California is far enough away from the Bay Area as to be in a different country. The gateway to Southern California, the city was in the 1920s not nearly as worldly as San Francisco and didn't have many of the same problems that plagued an international community. A resort town, Santa Barbara was filled with rooming houses and hotels and was the perfect place for Earle Nelson to head to as things heated up in San Francisco.

Whether he went directly from the City by the Bay to Santa Barbara is unknown, but for nearly two months, he managed to control his desires and avoid detection. Time and distance from the site of the Dark Strangler killings made the women of Santa Barbara lax in their surveillance of strange men and made them excellent targets for the psychopathic Nelson.

Railroad worker William Franey was a boarder in the home of Mrs. Ollie Russell, a 53-year-old woman who along with her husband kept a pleasant, if not slightly run-down boarding house in Santa Barbara. Franey, who worked at night, was asleep in his room on the top floor of Russell's home when he awoke to the sound of fierce banging coming from the room next door. Frustrated at yet another disturbance to his routine, Franey sleepily made his way to the door that separated his room from his noisy neighbors. Franey knew that the keyholes in the thin doors provided a view into the private lives of his neighbors and he bent down to peek inside.

He saw a large man, his pants pulled down around his knees frenetically making thrusting movements as his female partner lay beneath him. The banging of the bed's headboard against the wall was what woke Franey up. Embarrassed, Franey withdrew, but then prurient curiosity got the better of him and he leaned down to take another look. The man was wearing a shabby gray suit that looked much worse for wear but the woman's clothes were more upscale. As the man finished, arose and rearranged his clothing, Franey got a better look at the woman, although her face was turned away. But the more he looked, the more he thought the woman looked like his landlady, Ollie Russell.

Once the man finished dressing, Franey watched as he put on his hat and left the room. The railroad fireman could hear the door to the hallway open and footsteps leading away from the room. The woman on the bed had not said a word or moved in the slightest. Looking closer, Franey saw what looked like blood on the bedding. That, along with the knowledge that Mrs. Russell was not the type of woman who would even entertain thoughts of adultery, made him deeply suspicious so he headed out to find George Russell and report what he saw.

The two men returned home and Mr. Russell opened the door to the unrented room. "Her battered face gruesomely discolored, Ollie Russell lay dead on the mattress. She'd been strangled with a loop of cord pulled tight enough to tear the flesh of her throat. Blood had spattered from her neck onto the mattress, and there were bloody marks on the casing of the door," Schechter wrote.

This time, police were not as circumspect with reporters, and it soon became public knowledge that Ollie Russell had been sexually assaulted after she was dead.

Lust Murderer

It was a hot day in August when Stephen Nisbet returned home from work to find his 50-year-old wife missing. Although the fixings for dinner were laid out in the kitchen, left in mid-preparation, Nisbet assumed his wife had stepped out for a moment. He knew she couldn't have gone far, for her purse was still in the bedroom.

But Mary Nisbet didn't return home, and hours later a frantic Mr. Nisbet enlisted his neighbors to search for her. Just across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland boarding house operators like the Nisbets were well aware of the evil lurking just miles away; Stephen Nisbet presumed the worst and found it in the empty apartment on the second floor of his home.

There, crammed into the lavatory, was Mary Nisbet, ravaged and dead, suffocated by a kitchen dishtowel she had probably carried to the door when Earle Nelson rang. She was probably the most abused of Nelson's victims. Her head had been slammed to the tile floor of the bathroom with such ferocity that broken teeth were strewn around the small room and blood spatters marked every surface. Nelson had strangled her with such rage that he tore the dishtowel that was still tied around her neck like an obscene scarf.

The killings occurred with a frequency that astounded the authorities.

In Portland, Beata Whithers, a 30-something divorcee with a 15-year-old son, was found strangled and raped in the attic of the boarding house she ran. Mrs. Whithers was found stuffed into a trunk.

Two days later, another landlady was found dead and stuffed behind a furnace in her basement. Virginia Grant had been raped and robbed. A few days after Mrs. Grant's body was found hidden behind the furnace, the body of Mabel Fluke was found strangled and sexually assaulted. Her body was hidden in the attic crawl space of her home.

These murders, undoubtedly the work of the Dark Strangler, marked a departure from his previous signature, but could be explained by criminologists. Nelson had previously been unafraid of having his crimes discovered and had taken little care with hiding his victims. However, killers who have some shame or regret over their crimes will often make token efforts to cover or block the faces of their victims. Sometimes this effort will simply be to turn the head away from the killer's method of exit or to place a cloth over the face to hide it. Other times, more care will be taken to hide the shameful results, like Nelson did with his Portland victims. Except for Beata Whithers, who was placed in a trunk in the attic, each of the other women were discovered fairly soon after their murders. The hiding places Nelson picked were hardly ideal.

But the "personation" of the Portland crime scenes is quite telling about Earle Nelson. Criminologists define personation, and its cognate, depersonalization, as unusual behavior beyond that required to commit the crime. It is personation that helps establish a serial killer's signature and that often provides clues as to a killer's motivation, according to Dr. Robert Keppel in his book, Signature Killers. It is likely that Nelson's personation at the crime scenes indicate his victims represent someone he knew. Perhaps they represented his overbearing grandmother, or possibly the wife who rejected him.

"Depersonalization may be present as evidenced by the victim's face being covered by pillows or towels or by the body being rolled on the stomach (a more subtle form of depersonalization)," wrote John Douglas, et al. in the FBI's Crime Classification Manual. "Undoing represents a form of personation with more obvious meaning. Undoing frequently occurs at the crime scene when ... the victim represents someone of significance to the offender."

Almost from the genesis of psychology, practitioners have studied the connection between psychosis, sex and homicide. Not every psychotic turns homicidal, and not every homicidal maniac is a sexual killer. Yet some of the most brutal and disturbing murders in human history have sexual connotations.

The first scientific study of sexual homicide was done by psychiatrist R. Krafft-Ebing who in 1898 published Psychopathia Sexualis – the work that gave the world the term “sadism.” Krafft-Ebling considered sadism to be the combination of lust and cruelty, whereupon the subject would achieve sexual pleasure from another’s physical suffering. Sadism was a subdivision of what Krafft-Ebing called “parasthesia” – a “perversion of the sex instinct.” He further divided sadism into fatal and non-fatal types and called a homicide as the result of sadism “lust- murder.”

Modern criminologists have turned away from the term lust-murder in favor of “sexual homicide,” but for all intents and purposes, the definitions are the same.

There is no doubt that Earle Nelson was a lust-murderer, but whether he was a sadist is not as clear. In fact, the clues he left behind would tend to indicate he did not achieve sexual arousal from hurting his victims, for many of them were not abused until after death. A true sadist must have feedback from his victims, writes John J. Baeza and Brent Turvey in their article “Sadistic Behavior: A Literature Review.”

Turvey, in a subsequent communication, summed it up this way: “if the victim is not able to provide a suffering response for the offender to appreciate, then the offender, whatever they are doing, is not sadistic.”

If he wasn’t sadistic, then what motivated Earle Nelson? Why was he unable to face living, conscious victims? Unfortunately, there are no records left of the conversations psychiatrists had with Earle Nelson either before or after his arrest, so one can only surmise. Aside from his obvious mental defect caused by physical injury, disease or illness, something in his formative years pushed Earle over the edge of sanity. Could it have been his abandonment by his mother and father, followed by the death of the only other woman in his life? Perhaps. Ted Bundy, who was a sadist, was also abandoned.

The similarities of all Earle’s victims is significant. They were all close in age to his grandmother. His necrophilia could have arisen out of a desire to hurt his dead grandmother, with his victims playing her part. However, this is all speculation and an academic exercise in any event.

On the Move

With a determination that only another madman can understand, Earle Nelson crossed the American Northwest for the next sixteen months killing at will and leaving almost no clue for police to follow. As the bodies piled up, police in San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, and Portland, Oregon among other cities could only shrug their shoulders in frustration as they took a beating in the press over the apparent ease in which the Dark Strangler could slay.

In some homes, the women offered themselves up like sacrificial lambs. Portland's Blanche Myers was eating lunch with a gentleman friend when Nelson came to inquire about a room for rent. Despite press reports about the Dark Strangler, she quickly gave him the tour, accepted his $4 and the story that he was a lumberjack looking for work and went back to lunch. They found Mrs. Myers garroted and dead, underneath the bed she had rented to Earle. He took her life, her diamond engagement ring and $8.50 from her purse when he left.

By the end of 1926, Nelson had killed 14 women and an 8-month-old baby, which he throttled with a diaper. He earned money by working odd jobs and pawning the few baubles he stole from his victims.

Sometimes, Nelson left women alive. He stayed in Portland for a few days, his homicidal impulses apparently sated for the time being, and made a positive impression on the elderly landladies with whom he stayed. They were tracked down when they converted some jewelry he bartered with into cash -- it turned out that the gems were stolen from Mary Nisbet. The women only remembered a pleasant, quiet young man who studied the Bible and left suddenly without paying what remained of his bill.

Nelson fled eastward, stopping first in Iowa for a time, then to Kansas City, then to Philadelphia where he strangled a 60-year-old woman. He then moved to Buffalo, New York, then Detroit and finally into Chicago. By this time Earle Nelson had killed twenty women almost always with his bare hands or with at most a towel or rope.

Heading back to the Northwest, Nelson crossed the international border into Canada. It would be a fateful emigration. The next time he would return to the United States, it would be in a coffin.


Earle Nelson crossed into Canada from Minnesota and immediately headed toward Winnipeg. His first stop in Winnipeg was to a second-hand clothing store, where he traded his fancy duds for a workman's clothes and $1 cash. Nelson then charmed his way into Catherine Hill's boarding house on Smith Street, a quiet neighborhood near downtown.

It was probably somewhere on Smith Street that Nelson met 14-year-old Lola Cowan, a schoolgirl helping to supplement her family's meager income by selling paper flowers door-to-door. Her family had happened on hard times and with father recovering from pneumonia, the Cowans needed all the income they could earn. No one ever saw Earle Nelson with Lola Cowan, but the incontrovertible fact is that they met somewhere and he succeeded in talking the unfortunate girl into coming back to his boarding house room.

Nelson never slept in the room in Hill's boarding house on Smith Street, but his disappearance wasn't noted for several days. He was seen by other Winnipeg residents and flashed a roll of bills around a second-hand clothing store and barbershop. He confessed his alcoholism to a passenger on a city trolley and gave the man his spare hat as a gift for his sympathetic ear.

The money had come from the home of William Patterson, a God-fearing man who, with his wife, was raising a pair of handsome boys and saving up to start his own business. Nelson had happened across Emily Patterson as she was cleaning house the afternoon after Nelson had fled from the Smith Street boarding house. Somehow he managed to get inside the Patterson home and there he killed and then sexually assaulted Emily Patterson. As he had done so many times before, Nelson hid the woman's body.

William Patterson was frantic that night as he knelt down to pray for God's help in finding his wife. She had last been seen that morning by a neighbor, and hadn't been by to pick up her children from an after school play date with friends. At 11:30 p.m., with his sons tucked into bed and reassured that "momma will be home soon," Patterson knelt by his bed and asked God to "direct him to where his wife was," he would later testify. God answered his request, for as Patterson stood up from his prayer his leg lifted the long bedspread revealing a glimpse of his wife's favorite wool sweater. When Patterson reached underneath the bed, he felt his wife's cold hand and knew immediately she was dead.

Winnipeg was reeling from the news of Emily Patterson's death when the police visited Catherine Hill on Smith Street. They had wasted no time in assuming the American Dark Strangler had headed to Canada and were conducting a sweep of all the rooming houses in the city. Hill was cooperative, but she couldn't imagine that the nice Christian man who had rented a room in her house a few days before could be whom the police were searching for. She had not seen the pleasant Mr. Woodcoats since he had paid her a dollar with the promise of three more on Friday, but that wasn't so unusual. However, when the police left, Catherine went directly to his room and when no one responded to her knocks, she let herself in.

The room stunk of decay, as if the man had left some meat uncovered, but the bed had not been slept in and the towel she had left was unused. Hill then began to suspect that Mr. Woodcoats had skipped out on her and that perhaps she should notify the police. As Mr. Hill headed to the precinct house, another boarder, descending the stairs, happened to glance at just the right angle into "Mr. Woodcoats'" room to see something that looked like a mannequin or doll under the bed. Coming closer for a better look, it was clear that the boarder had discovered the missing Lola Cowan. Like so many others before her, she had been strangled and raped.

Capture and Breakout

Nelson had made a series of mistakes. His face became known to too many people in a relatively small city, he left witnesses at the rooming house where he pretended to be Mr. Woodcoats, and he raped and killed a young girl. Not only was the entire Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force looking for him, but also every other law-abiding, peace-loving citizen who would not stand for such barbarity also wanted his head.

The rewards being offered didn't help his case, either. As a foreigner, Earle Nelson was unfamiliar with the customs and traits of Winnipeg. Canadian culture may be similar to American, but it is still different. For one thing, Nelson, hitching a ride toward the international border, told some people he had worked on a ranch near Winnipeg. The men looked at him strangely, for no Canadian would call a spread of land that far west a "ranch" -- they were farms. That made him stand out in their minds as a liar and suspicious character, which in turn made him memorable enough that when reports of the horrible events of Winnipeg became public, they immediately thought of Nelson.

Thus, police were able to track his movements and predict his next appearance.

Earle Nelson was five miles from the U.S. border when the first lawman caught up with him. His description had spread throughout the province and every border town was on the alert. When Nelson stopped in a general store in Wakopa to buy food, he was recognized by the storeowner and a patron who knew of the $1,500 reward and notified the law. Nelson was headed out of town along the southbound railroad tracks aware that he had been spotted. He had gotten about a mile and a half away from Wakopa when the local constable appeared in front of him, revolver drawn.

Earle Nelson immediately raised his hands and surrendered.

Taken to the Killarney, Manitoba jail, Nelson stuck to his story that he was Virgil Wilson, a day laborer who had no knowledge of any "Gorilla Killer." He cooperated fully with his captors, who began to doubt that they had indeed captured the monster who murdered the two women in Winnipeg. After all, this man was a God-fearing and personable young man who might have been a physical giant, but seemed nice enough. His size and coloring might have matched the description the Mounties had distributed, but his clothes certainly did not.

Nelson was put into a century-old cell in the Killarney jail, without his shoes, socks and belt, as was the custom. He complied fully and without complaint and his jailer locked the cell door as Nelson or "Wilson" lay down on the straw-filled mattress on the iron bed hanging from the wall. Secure in the knowledge that his prisoner was locked up tight, the constable went to telegraph Winnipeg with the news. When he returned after stopping to buy a cigar and newspaper, the cell door was open and his prisoner was gone. The Gorilla Killer had managed to find a wire, pick the double lock on the cell door and escape from the jail without being seen.

Constable Wilton Gray immediately formed a posse to find the man he was now convinced was the Gorilla Killer. Every able-bodied man was armed and searching for Earle Nelson who was trying to make for the border sans belt, socks and shoes.

Nelson managed to find an old barn and hid there for the night. He found an old sweater and a pair of hockey skates from which he removed the blades and fashioned shoes. Not the best disguise, but it was better than nothing. The next morning, he began heading south once more and met a man from whom he bummed a couple of smokes.

Nelson's psychopathic nature was evident as he interacted with the farmer with the cigarettes. He was completely at ease standing in front of the farmer in a moth-eaten sweater and hockey skates for shoes, thinking himself invincible. This feeling of superiority is a common trait among serial killers who imagine themselves somehow protected from capture.

"Indeed what (Nelson) felt was even stronger than confidence," Schechter wrote. "It was more like omnipotence, the sense that he could get away with anything, that nothing could touch him -- as though he were the chosen instrument of an irresistible power that was using him for its own unimaginable ends."

Unfortunately for Nelson, it didn't take long for the farmer to realize he was speaking with the escaped Gorilla Killer, and shortly after Nelson went on his way, the farmer was alerting the police.

His capture was anticlimactic; he had only traveled a few hundred yards down the track by the time lawmen caught up with him and returned him to custody. This time, there would be no escape for the Dark Strangler.

Filling in the Blanks

A parade of witnesses from Canada and the United States identified Earle Nelson as the man they had encountered during the Dark Strangler's killing spree. By the end of Nelson's first week in custody, more than 40 people had viewed him in lineups or photographs and placed him at or near the scene of a murder. Most damning was the Winnipeg boarding house keeper, Catherine Hill, who positively identified him as the man who had rented the room in which Lola Cowan had been brutally murdered. Witnesses as far back as Merton Newmann, the only person who had seen Nelson within moments of him having committed a crime, pointed him out. Almost to a person they pointed out his dark piercing eyes as being his most memorable feature.

As the witnesses and police from various jurisdictions pooled their evidence, a more complete picture of his modus operandi evolved. He usually killed shortly after he had been shaved and barbered, then let his appearance grow more shaggy until the need to murder became unbearable. From his wife, Mary, police were able to report that Earle had not been home at the time any of the slayings occurred. Other evidence that Nelson was the killer was the fact that a knife with a blade that appeared burned by electric spark was found in his possession. The killer of the landlady in Detroit had used an electrical cord cut with a knife to commit the crime; at the time, police predicted the man would have a knife with an electric burn.

Nelson, who had finally admitted his identity, continued to maintain his innocence. "Murder just isn't possible for a man of my high Christian ideals," Schechter records Nelson as saying to a Manitoba newspaper.

The two men appointed to defend Nelson after his preliminary hearing immediately began pressing for a postponement. They argued that pretrial publicity was convicting Earle before trial and that anyway, Earle was nutty as a fruitcake and unable to help in his defense.

Within weeks of his final capture, Nelson was indicted for murders in San Francisco, Portland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Buffalo. It was clear, however, that he would be tried first in Manitoba, which at the time still had the death penalty. Nelson likely would never make it to the United States to answer for his crimes.

A parade of detectives appeared before him in Winnipeg, but Nelson refused to help them solve any of their open Gorilla murder cases. He continually expressed his innocence and godliness, and declined to get himself hanged to help close case files. He was officially linked to 22 murders, beginning February 20, 1926 and ending with the murders of Lola Cowan and Emily Patterson on June 9-10, 1927. Averaging slightly more than one murder per month, the actual dates are much more clumped. There were no murders between mid-August 1926 and mid-October, and five between June 1, 1926 and June 10. There were, however, several homicides where the m.o. was suspiciously like Nelson's but without enough evidence to formally link him to the crimes.


Nelson's trial was about as close to an open-and-shut case as one can prosecute, so despite the carnival-like nature of the proceedings, it offered very little in the way of drama. It was a media event like Manitoba had never seen, and the courtroom was packed with observers each day. The prosecutor's witnesses were solid in their identification of Nelson and the stories of the families of the victims were so heart-wrenching that it became hard for some observers to believe the mild-mannered, pleasant young man seated in the dock was the same man who could kill and then sexually assault the corpse of an elderly woman.

Nonetheless, the evidence showed it was Nelson who could be linked to each crime and his defense attorneys could do little to rebut the damning testimony. Their only hope lay in an acquittal due to insanity.

The defense used Nelson's family to show his bizarre behavior was insane. Mary testified to the bizarre way Earle would leave in one set of clothes and then return in something completely different and wildly inappropriate for the setting. She recounted how he had seen visions while in the Napa Hospital and how he drenched his food in olive oil. She told of his jealousy and the time he tried to give $2 for a down payment on a house. But she wasn't an expert, and her testimony came across as that of a woman trying to save her husband -- which, of course, it was.

Next came Aunt Lillian who told of her fear of Earle and of his strange wanderlust. He was more of a child than a lunatic, she said, but he was prone to horrible fits of anger and then depression followed by manic behavior. Again, Lillian appeared to be someone trying to save a loved one from the gallows.

After the unshakeable testimony of the prosecution's sole rebuttal witness, a psychiatrist who found Nelson to be a "constitutional psychopath," but legally sane, the prosecutor and defense summed up their cases and the fate of Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler, was in the hands of the jury.

It was a foregone conclusion that the jury would find him guilty and that the judge would sentence Earle Nelson to hang, and the jury did not disappoint. After less than an hour of deliberation, they returned the guilty verdict and Judge Andrew Dysart pronounced the death sentence. Nelson stood and stared blankly as he was condemned, as if he didn't understand or even care what the judge had just said.

As the sixty days from the date of his conviction to the date of his execution passed, Nelson became increasingly adamant about his innocence. He appealed his sentence and granted interviews to journalists to try and win sympathy. The high court of Manitoba disagreed and ordered the execution to go forward post-haste.

On the day before his execution, Nelson met with family members of two of his victims, including Lola Cowan's mother, but refused to yield in his claim of innocence. Finally, the time came for his hanging and he went peacefully, still proclaiming that he was innocent. He told reporters he had made his peace with God. He then stepped up to the gallows, stood straight as a hood was placed over his head and the rope affixed around his neck. The warden gave the signal and the executioner pulled the lever dropping the floor away beneath Nelson's feet.

There is a misconception about hanging that an executed convict dies immediately because of a cervical dislocation -- the person's neck is broken, and their spinal chord is separated from the brain stem. That is incorrect. According to the Delaware Hanging Protocol, the "how-to" manual on execution by hanging, the method of death is strangulation, which is not immediate. What can (and should) happen in a proper hanging is that the cervical dislocation creates immediate unconsciousness, and death follows in a matter of minutes due to a lack of oxygen to the brain caused by the rope blocking the windpipe.

Executing a man by hanging is a complex process, and many things can go wrong making the event a gruesome occurrence for everyone involved. For example, care must be taken to ensure that the rope is not too long. If that happens, the "executee" (the official term in the {Delaware Protocol}), will drop through the trapdoor and not have the merciful cervical dislocation, but will instead have his head torn from his body by the force of the drop. The method of execution therefore becomes something akin to drawing and quartering, which is cruel or unusual and banned by the U.S. Constitution (of course, Nelson was executed in Canada, which at the time had a similar ban.)

If the rope is too short, the drop height will be insufficient to create sufficient force (1,260 foot-pounds) to separate the executee's spinal column and brain. In that case, the man just hangs there and slowly suffocates. Unconsciousness takes between two and four minutes. His gasping and retching can be heard by witnesses. Again, this method is considered cruel and unusual.

Suffice to say that Earle Nelson's executioners did their homework and the Gorilla Killer died as merciful a death as is possible for a hanged man. It is more than just a curious coincidence that his cause of death was officially strangulation – the Dark Strangler’s preferred method of dispatching his victims.

Earle Leonard Nelson

Earle Leonard Nelson

Earle Leonard Nelson

Earle Leonard Nelson

Earle Leonard Nelson

Earle Leonard Nelson

Earle Nelson's prior record


Clara Newman

Beatha Whithers

Mabel Fluke

Blanche Myers

Emily Patterson crimescene