Long before serial killers became commonplace — before Ted Bundy, John Gacy and the Zodiac Killer — there was Earle Leonard Nelson, San Francisco’s own Gorilla Killer. If you wanted to create a serial killer, it would be hard to improve on the Nelson recipe:
Nelson was 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.
Though short, Nelson developed large hands and tremendous upper-body strength. He could walk on his hands for blocks at a time and lift chairs with his teeth. If only he had joined the circus.
Nelson left school at 14, worked in a series of manual jobs and acquired venereal disease in the brothels of the Barbary Coast. By 19, he had been in San Quentin State Prison, the Navy and Napa State Mental Hospital. Upon being discharged from Napa, Nelson made his next illogical move: marrying a 58-year-old spinster, whom he soon abandoned.
In February 1926, Nelson appeared at 2037 Pierce St., home of 60-year-old Clara Newman, a landlady who had a room for rent. She soon disappeared, and her strangled and mangled body was discovered in the vacant apartment the next day.
Nelson also killed landlady Lillian St. Mary at 1073 Dolores St. before taking his murderous act on the road. He was on his best behavior upon meeting landladies with an apartment for rent. Nelson was polite and talked about his deep Christian beliefs. He would carefully inspect the rooms and took particular interest in the condition of the furnace. His goal was to get the landlady alone in the basement, where he would attack her.
Witnesses described him as a dark, stocky man, with long arms and large hands. Because of this description and the ferocity of his attacks, newspapers started referring to him as the “Dark Strangler” or the “Gorilla Killer.”
As the police search intensified, Nelson crisscrossed the country, stopping in Portland, Ore.; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Kansas City, Mo.; Philadelphia; Buffalo, N.Y.; Detroit; and Chicago, leaving a corpse in each city.
On June 8, 1927, looking for greener pastures to bloody, Nelson moved north to Winnipeg, Canada with a Bible in hand and a devout look in his eyes. His landlady, Mrs. August Hill, was impressed with his piety. Two days later, after 14-year-old Lola Cowan disappeared and another woman was strangled, a police check of boarding houses brought them to Hill’s establishment. Police searched his room. Under his bed they found the decaying body of Lola.
Assuming that Nelson was headed back to the U.S., police sent descriptions to all police stations and post offices. Five days later, two constables in Killarney, an Ontario, Canada, border town, arrested a man named Virgil Wilson who fit the description. He was so relaxed and cooperative that they thought they had the wrong man. They handcuffed him to a cell while they went next door to call Police Chief George Smith in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
When they described their captive, Smith said, “Don’t let that man out of your sight. I want one of you with him at all times!” When the constables returned to the jail a few minutes later, they found the cell door open and handcuffs dangling from the bar.
Panic gripped the town. All the women and children spent the night in a church, guarded by dozens of armed men. A 500-man posse went from house to house while Nelson spent a peaceful night in the loft of a farmer’s barn. The next morning, Nelson walked to the station and waited for the train back to the U.S. This train, however, led to a different destination.
When the train doors opened, dozens of armed detectives, led by Police Chief Smith, charged out and Nelson was quickly arrested.
In all, between February 1926 and June 1927, Nelson killed at least 22 women, all but two of them landladies. He was convicted of murder and executed in Winnipeg on Jan. 13, 1928.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.