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Earle Nelson

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Earle Nelson
Earle Nelson.png
Nelson's 1927 mugshot
Born
Earle Leonard Ferral

May 12, 1897
San Francisco, California, U.S.
Died (aged 30)
Vaughan Street Jail, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Other names
  • The Dark Strangler
  • The Gorilla Man
  • Charles Harrison
  • Adrian Harris[1]
  • Virgil Wilson
Spouse(s)
Mary Martin
(m. 1919; sep. 1919)
Conviction(s)Murder
Attempted molestation
Breaking and entering
Criminal penaltyDeath
Details
Victims22+
Span of crimes
February 20, 1926–June 9, 1927
CountryUnited States and Canada
State(s)California, Oregon, Washington, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Manitoba
Date apprehended
June 16, 1927

Earle Leonard Nelson (née Ferral; May 12, 1897 – January 13, 1928), also known in the media as the "Gorilla Man," the "Gorilla Killer," and the "Dark Strangler,"[2] was an American serial killer, rapist, and necrophile. He was the first known American serial sex murderer of the twentieth century.[3] Born and raised in San Francisco, California by his devoutly Pentecostal grandmother, Nelson exhibited bizarre behavior as a child, which was compounded by head injuries he sustained in a bicycling accident at age ten. After committing various minor offenses in early adulthood, he was institutionalized in Napa for a time.

Nelson began committing numerous rapes and murders in February 1926, primarily in the West Coast cities of San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. In late 1926, he moved east, committing multiple rapes and murders in several Midwestern and East Coast cities before moving north into Canada, raping and killing a teenage girl in Winnipeg, Manitoba. After committing his second murder in Winnipeg, he was arrested by Canadian authorities and convicted of both murders, and sentenced to death. He was executed by hanging in Winnipeg in 1928.

In undertaking his crimes, Nelson had a cunning modus operandi: Most of his victims were middle-aged landladies, many of whom he would find through "room for rent" advertisements. Posing as a mild-mannered and charming Christian drifter, Nelson used the pretext of renting a room in the landladies' boardinghouses to make contact with them before attacking. Each of his victims were killed via strangulation, and many were raped after death. His penultimate victim, a 14-year-old girl named Lola Cowan, was the only known victim to be significantly mutilated after death.

Nelson's crime spree, which consists of 22 known murders, made him the most prolific serial killer in American history until the discovery of Dean Corll's crimes in 1973,[4] and was a source of inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt.[5]

Early life[edit]

Nelson was born Earle Leonard Ferral[6] on May 12, 1897 in San Francisco, California, the son of an English mother, Frances Nelson, and Spanish father, James Ferral.[7][8] Both of his parents died of syphilis before he reached the age of two.[3] Nelson was subsequently sent to live with his maternal grandmother Jennie Nelson, a devout Pentecostal who raised him alongside her two younger children, Willis and Lillian, who were ten and eight years his senior, respectively.[8][9] Nelson exhibited self-loathing and other "morbid" behavior at a young age, and was expelled from the Agassiz primary school in San Francisco at age seven.[10] Around the age of ten, he collided with a streetcar while riding his bicycle and remained unconscious for six days. After he awoke, his behavior became erratic, and he suffered from frequent headaches and memory loss.[11]

Described as a "psychotic prodigy,"[12] Nelson exhibited increasingly bizarre, manic behaviors in his childhood, such as talking to invisible people, compulsively quoting Biblical passages, and watching female family members undress.[12] His grandmother noted occasions where Nelson would embark to school in freshly-cleaned clothes and return home in rags, as though he had changed clothes with a homeless person.[3] Nelson's strong religious upbringing remained a pervasive influence in his life, and he obsessively read the Book of Revelation as a teenager.[13]

In his early teenage years, Nelson began frequenting brothels and bars in San Francisco's Barbary Coast red-light district,[3] and contracted a venereal disease.[12] As he progressed through puberty, Nelson grew into a stocky, physically-fit young man.[14] He would sometimes entertain his family with his physical talents, such as walking on his hands or lifting heavy objects with his teeth.[14]

Crimes[edit]

Early offenses; institutionalization[edit]

Nelson began his criminal career at a young age, and was sentenced to two years in San Quentin State Prison in 1915 after breaking into a cabin in rural Plumas County[15] which he believed had been abandoned.[3] He was paroled for this offense on September 6, 1916, but was arrested again in Stockton on March 9, 1917 for petty larceny.[15] Nelson spent another six months incarcerated before being discharged, after which he was arrested in Los Angeles for burglary charges.[15] After spending approximately five months in Los Angeles County Jail, Nelson escaped.[15] Sometime in late-1917, he enlisted in the U.S. military, but deserted after six weeks.[6] He repeated this pattern on several occasions, enlisting in different military branches under different names before deserting.[6] In 1918, Nelson was committed to the Napa State Mental Hospital after behaving oddly and erratically during one of his brief stints in the U.S. Navy.[3] A Navy psychologist noted that Nelson was "living in a constitutional psychotic state."[6]

Napa State Mental Hospital, where Nelson was institutionalized on multiple occasions

Upon his arrival at Napa State Mental Hospital, a psychologist who observed him on May 21, 1918 noted that Nelson did not appear "violent, homicidal, or destructive."[6] William Pritchard, a psychiatrist who conducted a preliminary interview with him, noted that Nelson spoke of hallucinations and other paranoid delusions: "He has seen faces, heard music, and at times believed people were poisoning him. Voices sometimes whisper to him to kill himself. Says that if he were kept in jail, he would get something sharp and cut the veins in his wrists."[16] Pritchard also indicated that Nelson had experienced occipital headaches, fainted several times, and felt dizzy during their interactions.[16] During his institutionalization, Nelson managed to escape at least three times before staff eventually stopped trying to locate him.[17] His frequent escapes earned him the nickname "Houdini" among the hospital's employees.[18] Nelson was formally discharged from the Navy in absentia on May 17, 1919, and his file with the hospital was closed with a note indicating he had "improved."[18][19]

Nelson subsequently acquired a job working as a janitor at St. Mary's Hospital, using the pseudonym "Evan Louis Fuller."[15] There, he met 60-year-old Mary Martin, an administrative worker.[20] The two began to date, and were married in August 1919.[21] Their marriage, however, was short-lived, as Nelson "made her life a living hell"[3] with his jealous rages, bizarre sexual demands, religious delusions, and increasingly violent behavior,[18] leading her to separate from him after cohabiting for only six months.[21] Martin would later recall various bizarre behaviors she witnessed while living with Nelson, which included protracted disappearances from their home and unusual bathing practices that entailed him pouring glasses of water over his toes.[22]

On May 19, 1921, Nelson posed as a plumber to enter the residence at 1519 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco and attempted to molest 12-year-old resident Mary Summers in the basement.[23] His attempt was thwarted when she screamed and attracted help from her elder brother.[24] Nelson fled, but was captured hours later while riding a trolley.[23] At a competency hearing, he was deemed dangerous and recommitted to Napa State Mental Hospital.[23] He would escape again on two different occasions before being discharged from the institution in 1925.[23]

Murder spree[edit]

February–November 1926: California, Portland, and Seattle[edit]

Clara Newman, a San Francisco landlady, was Nelson's first documented victim

Nelson began his killing spree early in 1926.[25] His first known victim was Clara Newman, a wealthy 60-year-old San Francisco landlady.[26] Nelson entered her boardinghouse at 2037 Pierce Street on February 20, 1926, posing as a potential tenant named "Roger Wilson."[27] Sometime after entering the home, Nelson strangled her before raping her dead body,[28] and hiding her corpse in a vacant apartment in the house.[12][29] His second victim, 63-year-old Laura Beale, was strangled in her home in nearby San Jose on March 2.[30] The silken cord which had been used to strangle Beale had reportedly been wound so tightly around her neck, it had embedded in her flesh.[31]

Nelson strangled and raped 63-year-old Lillian St. Mary, also in San Francisco, on June 26, 1926.[32] Exactly two weeks later, 325 miles (523 km) south in Santa Barbara, 53-year-old Ollie Russell was strangled with a cord in her boardinghouse.[33] An autopsy confirmed that Russell had been sexually assaulted after death, and the similarities in the M.O. between her murder and the San Francisco area slayings led police to assume they were connected.[34] On August 16, 52-year-old Mary Nisbet, an apartment building proprietor in Oakland, was found by her husband, strangled to death and raped in the bathroom of a vacant apartment.[35][36] Initially, local law enforcement questioned Nisbet's husband in her death, but he was shortly cleared of suspicion.[37] Witnesses later told police they had seen a "smiling stranger" lurking outside Nisbet's apartment building the day of her murder.[38] Others who claimed to have seen Nelson at the various boardinghouses described him to police as a dark and stocky man with "long arms and large hands."[12] Because of this, newspapers began referring to him as the "Dark Strangler," the "Gorilla Man," or "Gorilla Killer."[12]

Beata Withers, Nelson's sixth victim, and the first of several he killed in Portland, Oregon

In the fall of 1926, Nelson relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he raped and murdered 35-year-old landlady Beata Withers on October 19,[28] her body found by her teenage son, stuffed beneath clothing inside a steamer trunk in the attic of her home.[28][39][40] The following day, 59-year-old Virginia Grant was murdered in a vacant property she owned on East 22nd Street, her body hidden behind the home's basement furnace.[41] On October 21, landlady Mabel Fluke disappeared from her home in Portland; her body was discovered several days later in the attic, strangled with a scarf.[42][43] Despite the subsequent similar murders of Grant and Fluke, a coroner's jury of four men and three women was appointed on October 28 to evaluate the "mysterious" death of Withers.[44] The jury's decision was split in half, with three believing her death was a suicide, and the other three believing it murder.[44]

After committing the series of three murders in Portland, Nelson briefly returned to San Francisco, where he raped and murdered 56-year-old widow Anna Edmonds on November 18.[45] Initially, police were hesitant to attribute the crime to the "Dark Strangler"; however, several days after her murder, a friend of Edmonds told police she had stopped by Edmonds' home on the day of her murder, and found Edmonds talking to a "strange man" in her parlor about a business deal that involved her selling her house.[46] The woman's descriptions of the unknown man matched those of the "Dark Strangler."[46] The following day, November 19, in nearby Burlingame, California, a 28-year-old pregnant woman was attacked while showing her home to a man posing as a potential buyer.[47] She survived the attack, and described the man as being around 5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m) tall, well-dressed and well-spoken.[48] The woman later told reporters that, though she hadn't felt threatened initially, she realized in retrospect that the man had peculiarly commented on the home's intricate details, particularly the ceilings: "I realize now that he was trying to get me to look up towards the ceiling, so that he could get behind me and grab my throat," she said.[49]

Ten days later, on November 29, Nelson murdered and raped Blanche Myers in her Portland home.[50] Police were able to recover foreign fingerprints from Myers' iron bedpost.[50] The Portland murders ignited a public frenzy, and The Oregonian reported that the third floor of the Portland Police Bureau had become "a veritable madhouse," with clerks taking hundreds of phone calls and reports of "suspicious characters."[51] One local woman called police, claiming that a suspicious man had stayed in her boardinghouse for several days after the Thanksgiving holiday, using the name "Adrian Harris."[52] On November 29, the day of Myers' murder, she stated the man told her and other residents that he was leaving to take a train to Vancouver, Washington, and indicated that he would not be returning.[52] She found this suspicious given that he had paid multiple days' worth of rent in advance.[52] Before departing, he gave her and another female boarder pieces of jewelry as a gift, which were later confirmed by police to have been owned by Florence Monks, a wealthy widow who had been murdered and raped in her Seattle home on November 23.[53]

In hopes of preventing further murders, law enforcement in California and Oregon issued public safety announcements to citizens: in the San Francisco Bay area, elderly women were advised to take precautions while renting rooms and inviting strangers into their homes.[54] Meanwhile, the Portland Police Bureau issued the following statement to the public: "Do not show your houses or rooms for rent while alone. If necessary, call a policeman to accompany you. Crimes such as these should be prevented and could have been prevented if women had been more careful. I do not wish to unduly alarm the people of Portland. But there is no denying the situation is grave."[54]

December 1926–April 1927: Midwest and East Coast[edit]

Nelson murdered Germania Harpin and her infant son on December 27, 1926; this marked his first and only murder of a male victim, and of a young child

After leaving Portland in late November 1926, Nelson moved eastward, hitchhiking and stowing away on railway trains.[43] On December 23, the body of Almira Berard, 41, was found garroted with a shirt inside her Council Bluffs, Iowa home. Initially, local police presumed her death a suicide, as Brerard had recently been discharged from a psychiatric institution.[55] This was dismissed, however, after it was discovered that she had been raped.[56] Two days after Christmas, 23-year-old Bonnie Pace of Kansas City, Missouri was strangled to death and raped in her home, her body discovered in an upstairs room by her husband.[57] On December 28, Germania Harpin, age 28, along with her eight-month-old infant son Robert, was found murdered in her Kansas City home.[58][59] Both had been strangled – Robert, with a diaper[5] – and Germania had been raped after death.[58] Both she and Robert were discovered by her husband when he returned from work that evening.[58]

Nelson continued to move further east, murdering and raping 53-year-old landlady Mary McConnell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 27.[60] Several articles of jewelry were also stolen from McConnell's residence.[61] The following day, Nelson attempted to sell one of McConnell's gold watches to pawn shop owner Marie Kuhn, but she declined the items.[62] One month later, on May 27, Nelson arrived in Buffalo, New York, where he rented a room from 53-year-old Jennie Randolph, using the name "Charles Harrison."[63] Three days later, Randolph was discovered strangled to death and raped, her body stuffed under a bed in her home.[64] Randolph's brother, Gideon Gillett, had met "Mr. Harrison" when he first arrived at the residence, and described him as "about thirty-three years old, with a stocky build, dark complexion, and black hair slicked straight back."[63] Fred Merritt, a boarder in Randolph's house, would later positively identify Nelson as "Charles Harrison."[65]

On June 1 in Detroit, Michigan, boardinghouse manager Fannie May, along with boarder Maureen Atorthy, were discovered murdered and raped in the boardinghouse May oversaw.[45] Their bodies were found by the building owner, Leonard Sink, who had arrived to collect rent funds from May.[66] May had been garroted with an electrical cord cut from a table lamp.[45] Police determined that the cord had been cut while the electric current was still circulating, and that the knife with which it had been done would show visible burning as well as a nicked blade.[30] Two days later, Nelson murdered 27-year-old Mary Cecilia Sietsma in Chicago, Illinois.[43] Sietsma was discovered by her husband on the floor of their home, strangled with an appliance cord.[67] Several articles of men's clothing were also stolen from the home.[67]

May–June 1927: Canada; final crimes[edit]

On June 8, 1927 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 14-year-old Lola Cowan disappeared after leaving her home to sell artificial flowers door-to-door.[30][68] On June 10, another local woman, Emily Patterson, went missing; she was discovered later that evening by her husband, raped and strangled to death under her son's bed.[7] She had also been bludgeoned with a claw hammer.[69] Patterson's husband discovered her body while kneeling at the bedside to say evening prayers.[70] Upon investigation, police determined that several items were missing from the Patterson home, including a whipcord suit, Patterson's gold wedding ring, the family Bible, and $70 in ten-dollar bills.[71][72] A knife bearing burn marks and nicks was also left behind in the home; police found the knife to be consistent with that which had cut the lamp cord used in the May and Artorthy murders the week prior.[30]

The day after Patterson's murder, Fred England, a local jeweler in Winnipeg, unknowingly purchased Patterson's wedding ring from Nelson for $3.50, and clothing stolen from the home was subsequently discovered for sale in a local secondhand store.[73] Both the jeweler and clothing store owner would positively identify Nelson as the man who provided them the ring and clothing.[30][73] Nicholas Tabor, a barber who owned a shop next door to the secondhand store, told police he had given a man resembling Nelson a shave, haircut, and massage on the afternoon of June 10; while cutting the man's hair, Tabor noticed dried blood on his scalp, as well as scratch marks.[67] When he inquired about them, the man reportedly became agitated, and requested that Tabor not touch them.[67]

While performing a citywide search of boardinghouses in Winnipeg on June 12,[30] police entered the boardinghouse of Mrs. August Hill on 133 Smith Street, where Nelson had recently lodged.[12][74] Upon a search of his room, the decaying, nude corpse of Cowan was discovered under the bed.[2][12] Cowan's body, unlike that of his other victims, had reportedly been mutilated in a manner "reminiscent of [the victims of] Jack the Ripper."[75] Her clothing and belongings were missing and it was evident the bed had been slept in, leading police to determine that Nelson had spent the night sleeping with the body beneath the bed.[67] After the discovery of Cowan's body, Winnipeg City Council posted a $1,500 reward for information leading to the "conviction of the criminal degenerate" responsible.[76] This reward would subsequently become a point of dispute after several individuals came forward with information pertaining to Nelson's whereabouts.[77] Among them included a motorist who claimed to have given Nelson a ride from Emerson to Winnipeg on the day Cowan went missing.[78]

Capture[edit]

Assuming that Nelson had fled to the United States, Canadian police sent descriptions of him to all U.S. police stations and post offices.[12] In the intervening days, sightings of Nelson were reported in Regina, Saskatchewan and Boissevain, Manitoba.[30] On June 16, 1927, constables in Killarney,[30] a Manitoba border town 20 km (12 mi) from the North Dakota border, arrested a man named "Virgil Wilson" who fit Nelson's description.[12] His demeanor was reportedly so calm and cooperative that the constables assumed they had the wrong individual.[12] He was incarcerated in the local jail, but managed to escape the same evening.[12] However, Nelson made the mistake of trying to catch the same train that was transporting members of the Winnipeg police, and was recaptured twelve hours after his initial escape.[79] He was officially arrested again the next morning by an officer from the Crystal City police department, on the rail line 75 km (47 mi) east of Wakopa.[80]

Nelson was taken to the Rupert Street Police Station in Winnipeg where he was photographed, fingerprinted, measured, and prepared for identification lineups.[81] Nearly 4,000 spectators awaited his arrival outside the station, hoping to glimpse the accused man.[67] Photographs of Nelson taken by Winnipeg police were shortly sent out to police departments throughout the U.S.; this resulted in positive identifications from witnesses in Illinois and California who claimed the man was the same unknown renter they had had encounters with.[67] Though he maintained that his identity was that of "Virgil Wilson," fingerprints forwarded to Winnipeg from the San Francisco Police Department from his earlier arrests confirmed his identity as Earle Nelson.[67] Nelson's fingerprints matched those left behind at several of the crime scenes, as well as teeth marks found on victims.[82]

Initially, Nelson admitted to his crimes, bluntly telling reporters: "I only do my lady killings on Saturday nights."[25] However, he would subsequently retract his admission and claim he was innocent.[25] Upon an interview with the Manitoba Free Press shortly after his arrest, he said: "I'm charged with two murders. But I'm not the one who done it."[83] When asked about the various persons in the U.S. and Canada who had positively identified him as the "Strangler," he simply responded: "All of 'em are wrong."[83] Despite attempts on part of both U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies to elicit confessions, Nelson refused to admit to any of the murders of which he was suspected or accused.[84]

Trial and execution[edit]

Nelson's trial took place at the Winnipeg Law Courts Building

At the time of his arrest, Nelson was wanted in six U.S. cities, and was held to be tried in a Manitoba court for the murders of both Cowan and Paterson.[30] He was also charged with two counts of attempted molestation, and one count of burglary.[85] Nelson's trial was scheduled to begin June 27, 1927, but postponed at the request of his attorney,[86] and instead began on November 1, at the Winnipeg Courts Law Building.[80][87] The case was prosecuted by R. B. Graham,[88] and overseen by Justice Andrew Dysart.[89] Nelson was defended by the court-appointed James H. Stitt.[90] Nelson's ex-wife Mary Martin testified against him, claiming that he was "absolutely insane."[88] Additionally, over 60 individuals from both Canada and the U.S. testified, many placing Nelson at the scenes of the various crimes, or linking him to property stolen from victims' homes.[91] A jail guard who oversaw Nelson throughout his trial noted that he had become particularly obsessed with a certain Biblical passage from the Book of Proverbs, which read:

My son, give me thine heart,
and let thine eyes observe my ways.
For a whore is a deep ditch;
and a strange woman is a narrow pit.
She also lieth in wait as for a prey,
and increaseth the transgressors among men.[84]

Closing statements in Nelson's trial were completed on November 5, 1927.[88] After forty minutes of deliberation, the jury sentenced him to death.[88] Relatives of victims McConnell and Cowan visited Nelson in prison after his conviction, and he continued to proclaim his innocence.[92] In late December 1927, Stitt submitted a thirty-page document to Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, petitioning for clemency on the grounds that Nelson was insane, and that his personal history had been unfairly presented to the jury via the press.[7] The "eloquent, even moving" document consisted of 20 affidavits from persons who had known Nelson throughout his life who swore they were "in a position to know full well the character and mentality of the said Earle Nelson that [they] verily believed without exaggeration or mental reservation [had] been for a long period of time a person of unsound mind."[90] In one of the affidavits, Mrs. L. J. Casey, who had employed Nelson as a groundskeeper in 1926, attested to this, noting that she "hear[d] him laughing and talking to himself all the time. One day while I happened to be there, he sat right outside in the drenching rain, looking at the sky, without a coat, until he was soaked through."[93] Despite the abundance of affidavits, the appeal was denied, and Nelson's execution was scheduled for the second Friday of January.[94]

Nelson was executed by hanging at 7:30 a.m. on January 13, 1928[88] at the Vaughan Street Jail in Winnipeg. His final words were: "I forgive those who have wronged me."[79]

Modus operandi[edit]

When his identity was still unknown, law enforcement surmised that Nelson was a predator who "possessed a dual personality," likening him to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.[51] However, his modus operandi was clear even to investigators at the time of the crimes' occurrences.[95]

Nelson's victims were mostly landladies, whom he would approach on the pretext of renting a room.[3] Many of these victims were targeted after having placed "room for rent" advertisements in local newspapers.[3] Nelson, well-versed in Christian theology, often studied his worn Bible, using it to keep his victim at ease and off-guard.[3] Once he had gained their trust and was able to access their homes, he would kill them (almost always by strangling) and sometimes engage in necrophilia with the corpse.[12] Nelson would often hide the body, leaving it under the nearest bed.[96] In several of his murders committed in Portland, he went to additional lengths to conceal the body, hiding it in the attic or in a steamer trunk within house.[97] Other victims were concealed in closets or behind furnaces in the house.[75]

At the peak of his killing spree, Nelson was killing once every three weeks on average.[75] However, his killings sometimes occurred in spurts; his last victim, Emily Patterson, had been his fifth victim in only ten days.[75]

Pathology[edit]

Though there are many extant documents regarding Nelson and his trial, few of them contain psychiatric information regarding his pathology.[84] During Nelson's incarceration leading up to his trial, he was examined by Dr. Alvin T. Mathers, chief of the psychiatric ward and Winnipeg General Hospital, on five separate occasions between July 27 and October 24, 1927.[88] Based on these sessions, Mathers testified in court: "I did not find any evidence that to me would constitute insanity."[88]

Historical significance[edit]

Nelson was the first serial murderer in American history whose crimes were subject to widespread media attention in newspaper, national magazines, and the then-new medium of the radio.[5] His crimes and trial received international media attention, appearing in newspapers across the United States, Canada, and Australia.[82][98] His confirmed murder count, which exceeded 20, remained a record high for nearly fifty years until the discovery of Dean Corll's crimes in 1973.[4] According to crime historians Harold Schechter and David Everitt, Nelson was the first serial sex murderer in twentieth-century America.[3]

Victims[edit]

Though Nelson refused to admit to any of the crimes of which he was accused, he has been linked to a total of 22 murders that occurred between 1926 and 1927;[95] his victims consisted near-exclusively of women, along with one male infant child.[99]

1926[edit]

California, Oregon, Washington[edit]

Date Victim Age Location Notes Outcome Ref.
February 20, 1926 Clara Newman 60 San Francisco, California Strangled by Nelson while showing him a room in her boardinghouse. After her death, Nelson commits necrophilia with her corpse. Deceased [28]
March 2, 1926 Laura Beale[i] 63 San Jose, California Strangled to death in her home. Deceased [28]
June 10, 1926 Lillian St. Mary 63 San Francisco, California Strangled and raped after death. Deceased [28]
June 24, 1926 Ollie Russell 53 Santa Barbara, California Strangled and raped after death. Deceased [101]
August 16, 1926 Mary Nisbet 52 Oakland, California Strangled and raped in her apartment building. Her husband is initially questioned by police but cleared of suspicion. Deceased [102]
October 19, 1926 Beata Withers 35 Portland, Oregon Strangled and raped after death. Nelson stuffs her body in a trunk which is later found in the home by her 15-year-old son. Deceased [28]
October 20, 1926 Virginia Grant 59 Portland, Oregon Strangled and raped; body hidden behind furnace of her boardinghouse. Deceased [28]
October 21, 1926 Mabel Fluke N/A Portland, Oregon Body discovered in the attic of her boardinghouse. Deceased [42]
November 18, 1926 Anna Edmonds 56 San Francisco, California Strangled to death with a rag and raped. Deceased [103]
November 19, 1926 Mrs. H. C. Murray 28 Burlingame, California Pregnant woman, attacked while showing Nelson her home for sale. Survived [47]
November 23, 1926 Florence Monks 48 Seattle, Washington Body discovered by her caretaker, stuffed behind the basement furnace of her Capitol Hill home. Nelson later gives Monks' stolen jewelry to two Portland women as gifts. Deceased [104]
November 29, 1926 Blanche Myers[ii] 48 Portland, Oregon Strangled and raped in her home. Fingerprints are found on her iron bedpost. Deceased [50]

Iowa, Missouri[edit]

Date Victim Age Location Notes Outcome Ref.
December 2, 1926 Mrs. John Brerard 41 Council Bluffs, Iowa Strangled to death and raped. Initially thought to be a suicide due to Brerard's recent stay in a psychiatric hospital. Deceased [105]
December 27, 1926 Bonnie Pace 23 Kansas City, Missouri Strangled to death and raped. Deceased [95]
December 28, 1926 Germania Harpin 28 Kansas City, Missouri Strangled to death and raped. Deceased [95]
December 28, 1926 Robert Harpin 8 mos. Kansas City, Missouri Infant son of Germania Harpin; strangled to death with a diaper. Deceased [95]

1927[edit]

East Coast and Midwest[edit]

Date Victim Age Location Notes Outcome Ref.
April 27, 1927 Mary McConnell 53 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Strangled and raped in her home. Several articles of jewelry, including a watch, are stolen. Deceased [60]
May 30, 1927 Jennie Randolph 53 Buffalo, New York Body discovered stuffed under a bed in her home. Deceased [64]
June 1, 1927 Fannie May 53 Detroit, Michigan Found dead in boardinghouse she operated as building manager, garroted with electrical wire. Deceased [45]
June 1, 1927 Maureen Atorthy N/A Detroit, Michigan née Oswald; resident of Fannie May's boardinghouse. Deceased [45]
June 4, 1927 Mary Cecilia Sietsma 27 Chicago, Illinois Found by her husband, strangled with an appliance cord. Deceased [45]

Canada[edit]

Date Victim Age Location Notes Outcome Ref.
June 8, 1927 Lola Cowan 14 Winnipeg, Manitoba Kidnapped, murdered, and raped. Police discover her decaying corpse stored underneath Nelson's bed in a Winnipeg boardinghouse where he has rented a room. Deceased [12]
June 10, 1927 Emily Patterson N/A Winnipeg, Manitoba Strangled to death and raped. Her body is found by her husband, stuffed underneath their son's bed. A whipcord suit, Paterson's gold wedding ring, and $70 are also stolen. Deceased [106]

Other possible victims[edit]

Date Victim Age Location Notes Survives Ref.
August 23, 1925 Elizabeth Jones 62 San Francisco, California Found strangled in her home with her own necklace after being seen speaking to a man interested in purchasing her property; Nelson had recently been discharged from Napa State Hospital at the time of Jones' murder. Deceased [107]
September 25, 1925 Daisy Anderson 45 San Francisco, California Strangled while showing a room in her boardinghouse; body found nude inside the home. Deceased [30]
October 1, 1925 Elma Wells 32 San Francisco, California Body discovered nude, jammed into the closet of a vacant apartment in a building she managed. Deceased [107]
November 7, 1925 Mary Murray N/A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Strangled in kitchen; found deceased in upstairs bedroom. Body had been raped after death. Deceased [84]
November 11, 1925 Lena Weiner N/A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Found deceased in bedroom by husband. Body had been raped after death. Articles of clothing from husband's wardrobe also missing. Deceased [107]
November 1925 Ola McCoy N/A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Strangled in parlor of her home; found deceased in upstairs bedroom. Body had been raped after death. McCoy's home is located only blocks from that of Mary Murray. Deceased [107]
August 19, 1926 Isabel Gallegos N/A San Francisco, California Russian immigrant John Slivkoff was arrested in Gallegos' murder but subsequently ruled out after witnesses failed to pick him out of a lineup. Deceased [108]

In popular culture[edit]

Nelson's murder spree served as a source of inspiration for the 1943 Alfred Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt, which focuses on a serial killer, the "Merry Widow Murderer" (portrayed by Joseph Cotten) who targets elderly widows.[5]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Some sources alternately spell the victim's surname "Beal."[100]
  2. ^ Some source alternately spell her surname "Meyers."[99]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Nelson Identified as Man Who Killed Buffalo Woman". The Winnipeg Tribune. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. June 20, 1927. p. 1. Retrieved December 21, 2016 – via Newspapers.com. open access publication – free to read
  2. ^ a b Schechter 1998, p. 229.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Schechter & Everitt 2006, p. 196.
  4. ^ a b "Residents of Houston Curbing Murder Talk". The Beaver County Times. UPI. August 16, 1973. Retrieved June 3, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d Mayo 2008, p. 250.
  6. ^ a b c d e Chandler 2013, p. 95.
  7. ^ a b c Swainger & Backhouse 2011, p. 112.
  8. ^ a b Schechter 1998, p. 10.
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  89. ^ Douthwaite 1929, p. 294.
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  91. ^ Schether 2008, p. 274.
  92. ^ Douthwaite 1929, p. 312.
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  102. ^ Schechter 1998, pp. 97–8.
  103. ^ Schechter 1998, p. 131.
  104. ^ Schechter 1998, pp. 137–141.
  105. ^ Schechter 1998, pp. 157–59.
  106. ^ Schechter 1998, p. 315.
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  108. ^ Schechter 1998, pp. 100–101.

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]