Earle Nelson: America’s First Serial Sex Murderer in the Twentieth-Century
Written By: LFG
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
Born in San Francisco on May 12, 1897, Earle Nelson had a rough start on life when his parents died after contracting syphilis just before his second birthday. He was sent to live with his Pentecostal grandmother, Jennie Nelson, who instilled in her children—including Nelson—about how engaging in unholy acts would lead to eternal damnation. As a kid, it was observed that Nelson had an odd behavior at school that got him expelled. According to his teachers, he had a bad temper and was violent toward his peers. It wasn’t until he was hit by a tram as he was riding his bicycle that put him on a coma for six days that his personality took a turn for the worse. Upon waking, he complained of constant headaches and suffered from memory loss.
Throughout his teenage years, he grew even more bizarre and developed weird habits like voyeurism, talking to “invisible” people, and obsessively quoting Bible verses referring to the beast. He didn’t like interacting with other kids his age, preferring the company of his family instead. As a pre-teen, Nelson contracted a sexually transmitted disease due to his constant brothel and bar visits in the red-light district of Barbary Coast in San Francisco.
Before becoming a serial killer, Nelson did several smaller crimes like breaking and entering as well as burglary. In 1915, he spent two years in San Quentin State Prison for a trespassing crime in Plumas County. He was in and out of jail until 1917 for larceny until he escaped from Los Angeles County after spending just five months of being incarcerated. Shockingly, Nelson enlisted in the US Army for no apparent reason but deserted after six weeks. He enlisted under an alias for the second time and deserted again. He was deemed to be in a psychotic state by a psychiatrist and escaped twice from the facility.
At twenty-one years old, Nelson committed his first sex crime by attempting to molest a young girl named Mary Summers. However, he was arrested and committed to another mental facility in Napa State for exhibiting dangerous behavior, where he was released in 1925.
The Murder Spree Begins
On February 20, 1926, he murdered his first victim, Clara Newman, a landlady to a rooming house in San Francisco. Nelson would pretend to be someone looking for a room to rent and strangle the victim the minute they were alone in the room. This would become the pattern he would be following in the subsequent murders he committed. Months later, he killed two more women, who were also landladies, which led the police to believe that there was one murderer responsible for the crimes. Because of his large hands and signature murder method, which was strangulation, he was dubbed as “The Dark Strangler” or “The Gorilla Killer” by the media. The authorities began investigating nearby asylums to rule out the killer’s identity.
For a while, the killings in California stopped, but a series of similar murders began in Portland, Oregon. Nelson strangled two more landladies and fled back to California, where he resumed his killing. He spent some time moving back and forth between the two states, but he also had time to drop by Seattle, where he murdered and raped a rich widow named Florence Monks.
He continued his killing spree by traveling across the United States to Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, and finally, Chicago, where he committed his last murder in the US. To avoid capture, Nelson went to Canada. But his bid for an escape didn’t work after he ended up killed two more women in Winnipeg.
In total, Nelson murdered twenty-two people, including one male infant. Out of all the victims, he raped five women and usually did so after strangling them. He also attempted to kill a pregnant woman named Mrs. HC Murray, but she was able to fight back and survive the attack.
Arrest, Trial, and Death
The Canadian Police launched a major investigation and cautioned all women to refrain from having strangers into their homes, especially if they will rent a room. A $1,500 reward was offered to anyone who could provide information that would lead to the killer’s arrest.
Upon further probing, it was revealed that the Canadian and US police were looking for the same person. Finally, on June 16, 1927, Nelson was arrested by the Manitoba police after matching the description of ‘The Dark Strangler,’ however, he was using the alias Virgil Wilson. He managed to escape the jail cell using a nail file. But much to Nelson’s dismay, he hopped on to a train filled with police officers from Winnipeg, so he was taken in for the second time.
After several witness accounts and matching his pictures and fingerprints, it was finally determined that Virgil Wilson and Earle Nelson are one person. He initially admitted his crimes but took it back and boldly proclaimed his innocence.
Because of his widespread crimes, Nelson’s trial in Winnipeg drew a massive following. His ex-wife testified that he was insane, and the lawyer asked for clemency for the same reason. However, due to the compelling evidence against him, Nelson was sentenced to death by hanging.
“The Dark Strangler” was finally executed early morning at the Vaughan Street Jail, Winnipeg, on January 13, 1928. His long list of victims earned him the title of becoming the first known serial sex murderer in the United States according to the A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.
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