1928: Earle Nelson, the Dark Strangler

Add comment January 13th, 2020 Headsman

U.S. serial killer Earle Nelson hanged in Winnipeg, Canada on Friday the 13th of January in 1928.

A disturbed and preternaturally balding 30-year-old, Nelson grew up in San Francisco “a psychotic prodigy. He was expelled from primary school at the age of 7. His behavior included talking to invisible people, quoting Bible passages about the great beast and peeking at his cousin Rachel while she undressed.”

Monsterhood beckoned via a compounding of destabilizing influences: venereal disease, a religious obsession, and a collision with a streetcar that left him in a weeklong coma and with a permanent vulnerability to headaches and dizzy spells. By the latter 1910s he was rotating shifts of institutionalization: jail in Los Angeles (mere burglary), the Army (subsequently deserted), and commitments to the state mental ward (“He has seen faces, heard music, and at times believed people were poisoning him. Voices sometimes whisper to him to kill himself.”)

From the start of 1926 until mid-1927, he gave over to a homicidal spree that claimed 22 lives all around the U.S. and ranging — obviously — into Canada. They were all women, bar 8-month-old Robert Harpin, the infant son of a mother whom he targeted; while his second-last victim was just 14, the predominant victim profile was a matronly landlady whose lodgings he could enter at invitation as a prospective lodger — and there put her at ease with his Biblical facility while maneuvering her into some circumstance suitable for wrapping his hands around her throat. Most were also posthumously raped after strangling.

Those noticeably large hands were among the first descriptors that witnesses had given of the suspect from the scenes of his earliest killings in San Francisco, and this together with a swarthy mien gave newsmen the nickname “Gorilla Killer” or “Dark Strangler”. They’d have frequent cause to use it as the terrifying killings migrated north from the California Bay to Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; Seattle … and then east, leaving outraged corpses in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; Chicago.

Public alarm naturally followed each new report of his signature killings. After several homicides in Portland, the police there cautioned landlords from showing rooms unaccompanied with the grim words, “I do not wish to unduly alarm the people of Portland. But there is no denying the situation is grave.”

The Dark Strangler’s situation finally became grave when he took his act international. In Winnipeg he killed a teenage girl selling flowers and a housewife in quick succession, and this time the police A.P.B. was quick enough to catch up with him — gruesomely discovering the mutilated cadaver of the flower girl in his boarding house room. Public tips zeroed in on him a few miles before he reached the North Dakota border, and fingerprints courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department confirmed the identity.

Easily convicted in an atmosphere of great public outrage, Nelson mounted a credible but hopeless appeal for clemency on grounds of insanity.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt apparently began as a pitch for a Nelson-inspired screen treatment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,USA

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