To many people, religion is something that protects their mind, body, or soul from the struggles of everyday life. Others don’t have much time for the concept at all, yet this alone hardly means they’ll be any less moral a person in the long run. After all, some of the worst criminals in history have been terrifyingly religious in a virulent manner, inspired by their beliefs to assault or even murder anyone who dares disagree with them. Throw in mental instability, and they might just start killing for no reason, using their self-perceived piousness as justification for their destruction.
Truth be told, it’s hard to say if this was entirely the case with Earle Leonard Nelson, a California-born serial killer who murdered some 20 women in the late 1920s. Nelson’s victims were almost entirely middle-aged landladies with whom he spent hours having friendly conversations with about religion prior to strangling them to death in their own homes. There was also a disturbing sexual element to his crimes, suggesting an inner conflict between his horrific desires and the scripture he constantly quoted.
For most of his crime spree, police had no idea who Earle Nelson was, and almost a century after his crimes were committed, much of the general public has fallen into the same pattern. Discussing mass murderers isn’t for everyone, though others understand the best way to prevent monsters like this from being created again is to learn about those who senselessly took lives in the past. If you fall in line with that second category, keep reading to discover 15 creepy facts about “The Gorilla Man,” serial killer Earle Nelson.
15. He Was Raised By His Very Religious Grandmother
Unlike many future serial killers, there’s nothing to suggest Earle Leonard Nelson was physically, sexually, or even emotionally abused as a child, though this isn’t to say the kid didn’t have it rough. Both of his parents passed away due to syphilis by the time he was 2 years old, leaving Nelson in the care of his elderly and extremely religious grandmother. That his parents died from STDs was definitely an issue the elder Nelson imparted upon her grandson, in addition to plenty of other messages about how sexual activity was dirty, impure, and most of all, a horrible sin of the highest degree. Believe it or not, despite what Leonard would go on to do, this religious upbringing followed him throughout all his life and would even play a role in how he got away with some of his future murders.
14. He Was In A Terrible Streetcar Accident As A Child
Being raised as a good Catholic boy obviously wouldn’t have made Earle Leonard Nelson into a serial killer in and of itself. However, combined with serious brain trauma, it’s almost easy to understand how his wires could get crossed somewhere down the line. Said life-changing event occurred when Nelson was only 10 years old, when he was hit by a fast-moving trolley while racing across the street. In addition to a permanent new hole in his temple, the accident left Nelson in a coma for days. After waking up, he suffered severe headaches, hallucinations, and blackouts for the rest of his life as a result of the injury. By the end of his life, Nelson claimed the pain in his head was so powerful he couldn’t even walk. In no way does any of this justify mass murder, of course, yet it might explain how his mind was warped into committing such an act.
13. He Had Bizarre Eating Habits From A Young Age
Losing his parents before he could walk wasn’t the last childhood loss suffered by Earle Nelson, as his beloved grandmother also passed away when he was 14. From there, Nelson moved in with his aunt and her children, all of whom mocked him for his strange post-accident appearance and even weirder dinner-time behavior. In fairness to these kids, it would be hard not to question what the heck young Nelson was doing as he poured olive oil all over his plate and licked it clean like he was an animal eating out of a trough. Apparently, this was pretty much the only way Nelson would ever eat anything up until his teenage years, and he didn’t understand why other people questioned him or made fun of him for it. Not that eating habits are related to future serial killings in the slightest, yet this behavior was strange enough people were already questioning Nelson’s sanity.
12. His First Prison Stint Started At 18
With a family that thought he was weird and cast aside by society that largely agreed with that assessment, Earle Leonard Nelson was pretty much on his own by the time he was 18. In many respects, he had voluntarily taken on that sort of lifestyle since he first dropped out of school, as his aunt and cousins often reported he would wander off for days and come back wearing strange, different clothing. There’s no indication what he did for food or money during these vacations from reality, but given how they ended, it isn’t that hard to guess. After multiple disappearances from home, Nelson was ultimately caught breaking into a cabin he had “thought was abandoned.” That phrase is in quotes because he also stole food and money from the home, then fled from police when the owners arrived. In any event, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison for what he did.
11. He Was Sent To Mental Institutions Multiple Times
The second a streetcar left a massive hole in Earle Leonard Nelson’s head, the discussion about psychological care should have begun. Unfortunately, this happened back in the 1900s, before long-term mental health was something doctors knew all that much about. This is why it wasn’t until the US Navy rejected his application for fear he was insane that Nelson was actually committed to the Napa State Mental Hospital for the first time. That said, it might not have mattered when people realized Nelson needed mental care because the man himself apparently disagreed with the suggestion vehemently. There’s no other explanation for why he broke out of the hospital at least three times during his first incarceration alone, behavior he would continue repeating each time he wound up behind rubber walls. Amazingly, rather than give him proper treatment, Nelson’s doctors took a far less Hippocratic approach…
10. The Hospital Basically Gave Up On Treating Him
Alright, so it goes without saying that society’s understanding of mental health in the 1910s wasn’t quite as advanced as it is today. It’s also fair to argue security wasn’t anywhere near what it would become, making it easy for a decent pickpocket to escape from pretty much wherever they were held captive. However, neither of these explanations justify why the Napa State Mental Hospital staff simply gave up on returning Earle Nelson to his room after repeat escape attempts. The fact his doctors were having no success to speak of with their treatment thus far should’ve made them try extra hard to bring Nelson back and give him the help he desperately needed or at least keep him away from the general public until that care could be found. Instead, they totally gave up in every sense of the term, not even bothering to find the guy after his third consecutive escape attempt. Unsurprisingly, Nelson’s criminal activities escalated, getting him sent back to the hospital, only for the exact same pattern of neglect to repeat itself.
9. He Attempted To Abuse A 12-Year-Old Child
Criminals of Earle Nelson’s ilk are known for their terrifying escalation, especially when they start worrying their crime spree might be coming to an end with long-term imprisonment. Nelson’s first stint in jail was in relation to a nonviolent crime, and it would be the last time one of his victims got away so easily. Shortly after his latest prison escape, Nelson entered the home of a 12-year-old girl named Mary Summers as he posed as a plumber. Somehow, Nelson got Mary alone in the basement with clear intentions of sexually assaulting her. Showing great bravery and courage for her age, the young girl screamed and fought loud enough that her brother heard what was happening and ran to the scene, stopping Nelson’s attack. Despite his history at the institution, Nelson was sent straight back to Napa State Mental Hospital, where he again escaped multiple times. Shockingly, the hospital also repeated its poor behavior, letting him go without proper treatment once more.
8. He Married A Much Older Woman Who Resembled His Grandmother
One of the stranger shared traits between most serial killers is being raised by a lone dominant female presence. This isn’t to say all children raised by single mothers will become serial killers by any means, yet there is apparently a link in the minds of those who kill between their darker instincts and how their upbringing makes them feel about women. In Earle Nelson’s case, the fact his elderly grandmother was his sole caregiver almost certainly has something to do with how he would get married to Mary Martin, a 58-year-old woman while he was still in his late 20s. From the very beginning, this marriage was highly flawed and not just because of their age gap. Nelson also had disturbing sexual desires that drove his wife crazy, as she was devoutly religious, often making her refuse his advances. This led to death threats, so she informed police, making Nelson disappear from her life, never to see her again until his murder trial.
7. He Killed Women After Renting Apartments From Them
Having been rejected by his devoutly religious, much older wife, Earle Nelson began seeking another woman who could fulfill his terrifying desires. He first found one in Clara Newman, a 62-year-old landlady renting apartments in San Francisco. Lying about his desire to rent one of her rooms, Nelson conned his way into Newman’s home using an assumed alias. What exactly happened next isn’t entirely clear, but the end result is all that matters: Newman was found dead, and Nelson fled the scene. Over the next year, Nelson would repeat this basic pattern at least once every two weeks, seeking out elderly landladies, pretending to rent from them, and then strangling them to death in their homes. Occasionally, people would catch glimpses of Nelson fleeing from the home in darkness, yet none ever got a good enough look to help authorities apprehend the killer.
6. His Religious Beliefs Were Integral To His MO
When confronted with his crimes after the fact, Earle Nelson denied all involvement, alleging that a man of his devout Christian beliefs could never do what he was accused of having done. In fact, it seems like the exact opposite is true, as Nelson’s so-called devotion to Christ played a huge role in how he gained the trust of his victims. Whenever Nelson planned to meet a landlady he would then kill, he made sure to dress in a nice suit, comb his hair back neatly, and most importantly, carry around a torn and battered Bible wherever he went, making himself look like the textbook definition of a “good religious boy.” From there, Nelson would chat with his victims about his favorite Bible passages, practically preaching sermons to the women and whoever else happened to enter the room while he was there. Once everyone left and his victim least suspected it, Nelson dropped the façade and strangled them to death.
5. He Killed 22+ People In Little More Than One Year
In the early 1900s, neither America nor Canada had truly faced a country-wide serial killing menace. There was H.H. Holmes, who lured victims into his murderous hotel during the Chicago World’s Fair, and several other mass murderers who focused on their own families, yet it wasn’t until Earle Nelson that police were tasked with finding a single killer who traveled from state to state and then across countries committing the same crime. Ultimately, Nelson murdered at least 22 and as many as 26 women, almost all of them landlords except for one 14-year-old girl and the newborn baby of one of his older victims. Despite a lack of modern transportation, Nelson managed to take victims in California, Oregon, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and then finally Manitoba, Canada, where he was caught and brought to justice.
4. He Violated His Victims’ Corpses
Had Earle Leonard Nelson simply broken into landlady’s homes, earned their trust, and then murdered them where they stood, he would be one of America’s greatest monsters. That he also quoted the Bible up until his victims’ last minutes alive is also intensely disturbing, and yet it only begins to show the true horror the “Gorilla Man” had living within him. Almost all of his 20+ victims were found either naked or in some state of undress, and the implication is unfortunately exactly as it seems. Nelson was a serial necrophiliac in addition to a killer, sexually violating the corpses of most women he killed. Because his time in mental hospitals was less than fruitful, researchers have no idea where this sexual perversion came from, though it likely played a key role in why he killed, to begin with. People with this proclivity can only find release with dead bodies, and for Nelson, that meant murder was the first step to satisfaction.
3. He Was Caught Twice On The Same Day
One way to look at Earle Nelson’s crime spree is that his mental instability not only played a huge role in his crimes but also helped him get away with them for so long. Because Nelson was truly insane, not even he knew where he would travel next, disappearing immediately after each victim’s life was taken. All police had to go on was the fact that bodies were found in similar conditions all around America and that a tall, dark stranger was known to have killed them. There was no information about Nelson, specifically, that helped authorities search for him until he happened to visit a barber the same day he took his last victim’s life. Noticing blood in Nelson’s hair, the barber informed police, who soon apprehended him and sent him to jail. Immediately, Nelson picked the prison locks and tried to escape via train, only to discover that same train was loaded with Winnipeg police officers ready to send him back to jail.
2. He Was Executed For His Crimes
Whenever a serial killer is caught, a media circus is inevitable during the trial, and as one of the first in Canadian history, Earle Nelson obviously caught the public’s attention in a major way. That said, his case was as open and shut as possible given the circumstances, with absolutely no doubt in most experts’ minds that Nelson committed the atrocities he was accused of. The evidence against Nelson was so overwhelming, his lawyers couldn’t even plead his innocence, though the man himself repeatedly tried doing so, arguing a man of his faith couldn’t do what they said he did. Instead, the lawyers used these claims of innocence as part of an insanity plea, in addition to testimony from his ex-wife and aunt, both of whom were convinced Nelson was insane. Given everything this list has already said, he was definitely unbalanced, albeit not in a way that spared him from the gallows, where a jury decided he deserved to be executed.
1. His Chilling Nicknames Explained
Like most serial killers, Earle Nelson didn’t give out his actual name all that much, and as such, police were completely unaware of his true identity until the day he was caught. Until then, all they had were epithets describing his actions, most famous of which was “The Dark Strangler.” This was due to Nelson’s darker skin, plus the obvious fact he strangled the majority of his victims. Given he was the first person to serially murder victims across several states, police could even use the less descriptive title of “Strangle Murderer,” and everyone knew who they were talking about. More infamously, Nelson started getting called “The Gorilla Man” after his trial, largely due to strange testimony from his grandmother suggesting he walked around on his hands as a teenager. His dark skin and elongated face, an aftereffect of his childhood trolley incident, also played a factor in the moniker.
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