Earle Nelson: The “Gorilla Man” Serial Killer Who Preyed On Female Landlords

Earle Nelson [San Francisco Police Department]

WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, CANADA — On January 13, 1928, Earle Nelson died in the gallows of Winnipeg’s Vaughn Street Jail, where he’d done time for strangling (and often posthumously raping) at least 22 female victims.

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Weirdly, all but two of Nelson’s targets were landladies (the exceptions were a teenager and an eight-month-old baby).

Weirder still, a witness description of Nelson as a “dark, stocky man with long arms and large hands” got him dubbed “Gorilla Man” by the press — and the name has stuck even nine decades after his execution.

Born in 1897, Earle Nelson grew up in chaos. By age two, both his parents had died of syphilis and he was handed off to his grandmother, a Pentecostal religious fanatic, who punished him severely for even the most minor misstep.

At 10, Nelson accidentally crashed his bicycle into a streetcar and suffered extreme head trauma, landing in a six-day coma. After he came to, the boy exhibited odd behavior, had trouble remembering things, and suffered from blinding headaches.

Nelson clashed with authorities both as a teen and during a short gig in the Navy. The latter resulted in his being committed to a mental hospital, from which Nelson escaped enough times that staffers finally just let him go.

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Breaking into a cabin he thought was unoccupied earned 18-year-old Nelson a three-year stretch at San Quentin. Upon getting sprung, his anti-social behavior escalated to include sexual assaults, the degrees of worse kept getting worse.

In 1921, Nelson disguised himself as a plumber to enter a California home. Once inside, he forced himself on a 12-year-old girl. The child’s older brother chased Nelson away, and the police didn’t catch up with him.

From there, Nelson drifted around the country, formulating a bizarrely effective ruse to satiate his sexual deviancy and homicidal impulses.

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In 1926, when the “Gorilla Man” killings commenced, boarding houses were common almost everywhere, as were single men who routinely checked in and out of them. Nelson exploited this situation by seeking out transient residences owned and operated by women.

In town after town, Nelson would find a house with a “Room for Rent” sign, then pose as a mild-mannered, devoutly Christian traveler or newly arrived laborer in order to charm each landlady as she interviewed him.

Once a proprietor let her guard down, Nelson would strangle her to death and then, more frequently than not, copulate with her remains. Afterward, Nelson typically stuffed the body under a bed, stole a few small valuables that he could peddle quickly, and then hightailed it to the next location.

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The madness carried on for 18 months, with Nelson leaving 22 known bodies in his wake up and down the U.S. West Coast and the northern mid-west (he is also the prime suspect in a triple homicide near Philadelphia).

The horror finally ended when Nelson crossed the border up to Canada and murdered housewife Emily Patterson, whose husband found her corpse when he kneeled down to pray, and 14-year-old Lola Cowan.

Police put together that Nelson had been in both homes and were able to arrest him quickly. He escaped custody though, but made the stunning mistake while fleeing of hopping onto a train full of police officers. That time, he didn’t get away.

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Initially, Nelson confessed to his crimes, bluntly telling interviewers, “I only do my lady killings on Saturday nights.” Later, he insisted he was innocent.

The resulting trial proved to be a media sensation. Defense attorneys pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, but prosecution witnesses convinced the jury that Nelson calmly and coldly knew what he’d been doing. The procedure ended with Nelson being found guilty and sentenced to the noose.

When it came his day to die, the Gorilla Man said he’d made his peace with God and was ready to go. The hangman obliged him.

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Read more:
The Lineup
Crime in the 1920s
Did You Know

Main photos: Earle Nelson [San Francisco Police Department]



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