Why "Gorilla Man" Earle Nelson was America's worst murderer long before the term "serial killer" was even invented.
In the era before the likes of Ted Bundy and the Zodiac Killer, plenty of serial killers roamed throughout the United States and committed unspeakable acts of murder — even though the very term “serial killer” hadn’t yet been invented and the public wasn’t yet fascinated by these murderers like it is today.
And in that era before serial killers were mainstays on front pages and movie screens, one of America’s grisliest and most prolific murderers was a man named Earle Nelson.
Earle Nelson’s Early Life
The tragedy of Earle Nelson began a mere 15 months after his birth in San Francisco on May 12, 1897. It was then that his parents both died of syphilis, causing him to go live with his maternal grandparents, Lars and Jennie Nelson. The Nelsons lived a puritan lifestyle and sought to repress emotions, feelings, and especially sexual desires.
These conditions were particularly tough for a young troublemaker like Earle Nelson.
At the age of seven, he was kicked out of school for bad behavior. His teachers complained that the boy spoke to invisible people and quoted sections of the Bible referring to a great beast. Meanwhile, he also liked to secretly watch his cousin, Rachel, undress.
Then, at the age of 10, the young boy was out riding his bicycle when he got into an accident with a streetcar. He bled profusely from a hole in his temple, and doctors didn’t think he was going to live. But miraculously, after several days in a coma, Nelson survived. The injury dogged him for the rest of his life as he frequently complained of headaches and memory problems, and began to exhibit erratic behavior.
The Crimes Begin
At the age of 21, Earle Nelson’s criminal habits became more apparent as he sought a way to break free of his repressive upbringing. On May 19, 1921, he pretended to be a plumber so that he could enter a San Francisco home and molest a 12-year-old girl. However, she screamed and he fled only to be identified and arrested hours later.
At his hearing, authorities deemed that he was dangerous and should return to Napa State Mental Hospital, where he’d spent time previously due to his hallucinations and paranoid delusions (he heard voices and believed that people were constantly trying to poison him, for example).
At the hospital, he threatened to kill the medical staff and doctors recommended that he stay there permanently. But rather than sit there and wait out the rest of his life, Nelson quickly escaped from the hospital and the period of his most infamous crimes began.
Nelson’s murderous spree started in October of 1925 in Philadelphia. Within three weeks, three women were strangled to death. Olla McCoy, May Murray, and Lillian Weiner all died in their homes after a struggle. Each of the bodies was sexually assaulted after they died. Each home had a “room for rent” sign in the window.
Some authorities do not officially attribute these victims to Earle Nelson, but some of these crimes’ common elements (the knots used to bind the victims, for example) matched those of his later crimes and he matched the description given by a pawnbroker of the man who sold clothing belonging to the victims.
A few months later, in February of 1926, Nelson returned to San Francisco and began killing more unsuspecting women. Five more women died from February to August, and all of the cases had the same basic pattern: Middle-aged women who put rooms up for rent ended up strangled to death and raped, with some of their possessions later sold off, but the killer was never found.
There were some witnesses who saw a possible perpetrator in San Francisco. A few people described the assailant as a dark, stocky man with long arms and large hands. This description was akin to a gorilla, so some newspapers began referring to this serial killer as “The Gorilla Man.” Others called him the Dark Strangler because of his kill methods but also because no one got a clear look at him.
Earle Nelson Goes On The Move
Later in 1926 and into 1927, authorities began noticing more strangulation and sexual assault cases similar to the ones in San Francisco in places across the country, including Portland, Oregon; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; Buffalo, New York; and Winnipeg, Canada.
In Winnipeg, Nelson murdered two victims. One of them was Lola Cowan, just 14 years old. On June 8, Nelson killed, sexually assaulted, and mutilated her before stuffing her body under the bed and then sleeping the night through on that very bed.
The other Canadian victim, Emily Patterson, managed to pull tufts of Nelson’s hair from his head before she succumbed to strangulation on June 10, 1927. The next day, Nelson decided to pawn some of her and her husband’s belongings that he’s stolen from the scene and then get a shave and a haircut.
Police tracked the stolen goods and then, with the pawnbroker’s help, retraced Nelson’s steps from the pawn shop to the barber shop, where the proprietor told authorities what Nelson looked like and that he’d had blood on his scalp (from where Patterson had grabbed his hair).
Believing that this man’s description and his modus operandi matched information they’d received from other police departments about the “Gorilla Man,” the police figured that they were after this infamous killer, got the word out about his description, and set out to find him.
The “Gorilla Man” Faces Justice
The murderer rented a room from another unsuspecting woman on the night of June 12, 1927. But the next morning, he saw his description in the newspaper. It was time to ditch the remaining stolen clothes and head out of town.
Accounts of the ensuing brief manhunt for Nelson vary somewhat, but we do know that a civilian in Killarney, Manitoba reported a sighting of him on June 16 and police were able to catch him there. However, he was able to pick the lock on his cell door that night and escape.
But he was captured the next day when a policeman spotted him trying to board a train in Crystal City, Manitoba.
Nelson was finally arrested and charged with murder after his fingerprints and teeth marks matched those found at some of the crime scenes. Authorities claimed that Nelson killed at least 22 people across the United States and Canada over the span of 20 months from the fall of 1925 to the summer of 1927. The true number of victims may very well be even higher.
After a short trial, Canadian authorities executed Nelson in Winnipeg on Jan. 13, 1928. He was the worst known serial killer at the time in terms of sheer number of victims.
As to why he killed all these women, doctors and law enforcement officers at the time never really settled on a firm motive — and even disagreed as to whether or not he was actually insane.
Whatever his motives and his true number of victims, Earle Nelson was America’s most prolific murderer until the 1970s, by which point the true age of the serial killer had begun.