February 20, 1926
San Francisco, California
Clara Newman is killed, becoming the first known victim of serial killer Earle Nelson (pictured)
Before Nelson was identified, the press dubbed him the “Gorilla Killer,” as he was described, as the Northern Territory Times reported, as “a degenerate with huge hairy hands.” (As you can see in the photo below, Nelson had decidedly bald hands. This and similar pieces of journalistic embellishment were common at the time to encourage newspaper sales, a trait which continues in some less reputable news outlets to this day.)
On February 20, 1926, Nelson inquired about renting a room. Clara Newman and her adopted, adult son (who was also her nephew by blood) greeted Nelson and Newman showed him to the available room. Nelson left some time later, without Newman’s company. He told Newman’s son he had agreed to rent the room and would return within an hour. When Nelson did not return an hour and a half later, and Newman had not been seen since she showed Nelson the room, Newman’s son searched for her. She was found in the attic, the cord used to strangle her still wrapped around her neck. Newman had also been raped. Her son told police he did not hear any struggles or other disturbances during her attack.
Newman’s son provided police with a description of her killer, though Nelson would kill at least 21 more over 16 months and 7,000 miles.
During the span of his crimes, Nelson primarily targeted women renting out rooms. Similar to Newman’s case, he was often seen immediately before or after the rapes and murders, though Nelson moved frequently and was not overly concerned with being identified. Though he mostly focused on adult women, two victims were children: an 8-month-old and a 14-year-old. The baby’s death was incidental, killed during an attack on the infant’s mother Germania Harpin. 14-year-old Lola Cowan, however, was intentionally targeted. Cowan was the first victim attacked in Canada. The next victim, Emily Paterson, would be Nelson’s last.
Nelson matched eye witness descriptions of the so-called Gorilla Killer and was arrested on June 15, 1927. He escaped jail the same day and attempted to hop a train back to the United States. Unfortunately for Nelson, he chose a train carrying a police officer who recognized and apprehended him.
Combined with eye witness descriptions and identification during line-ups, Nelson was also linked to the scenes by fingerprints on furniture and bite marks left on the victims. He was convicted of killing Paterson and sentenced to hang, his execution being carried out on January 13, 1928. Nelson professed his innocence until his death. His final statement was, “I am innocent. I stand innocent before God and man. I forgive those who have wronged me and ask forgiveness of those I have injured. God have mercy!”
Nelson’s known victims are:
1. Feb. 20, 1926: Clara Newman. San Francisco, California
2. March 2, 1926: Laura Beale. San Jose, California
3. June 10, 1926: Lillian St. Mary. San Francisco, California
4. June 24, 1926: Ollie Russell. Santa Barbara, California
5. Aug. 16, 1926: Mary Nisbit. Oakland, California
6. Oct. 19, 1926: Beata Withers. Portland, Oregon
7. Oct. 20, 1926: Virginia Grant. Portland, Oregon
8. Oct. 21, 1926: Mable Fluke. Portland, Oregon
9. Nov. 18, 1926: Mrs. William Edmonds. San Francisco, California
10. Nov. 23, 1926: Florence Monks. Seattle, Washington
11. Nov. 29, 1926: Blanche Meyers. Portland, Oregon
12. Dec. 23, 1926: Mrs. John Beard. Council Bluffs, Iowa
13. Dec. 25, 1926: Bonnie Pace. Kansas City, Missouri
14 and 15. Dec. 28, 1926: Germania Harpin and her 8-month-old child. Kansas City, Missouri
16. April 27, 1927: Mary McConnell. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
17. May 30, 1927: Jennie Randolph. Buffalo, New York
18 and 19. June 1, 1927: Minnie May and Maureen Oswald. Detroit, Michigan
20. June 3, 1927: Cecilia Sietsma. Chicago, Illinois
21. June 8, 1927: Lola Cowan. Winnipeg, Manitoba
22. June 9, 1927: Emily Paterson. Winnipeg, Manitoba
Updated February 20, 2021. Added map of victims.
Updated April 24, 2021. A reader notified me one of the pictures I had assumed was Nelson was of another serial killer and rapist, Jarvis Catoe. Thank you, Felix, for the correction!
Mosbach, Michael; Conrad, Shae; and McCollum, Amy. “Earle Leonard Nelson: “The Gorilla Killer” and “The Dark Strangler”.” Radford University, Department of Psychology. Accessed: February 20, 2020. http://maamodt.asp.radford.edu/Psyc%20405/serial%20killers/Nelson,%20Earle%20Leonard.pdf
Storey, Neil R. The Little Book of Murder. The History Press, 2013
Newton, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. New York: Facts On File Inc., 2006
Nash, Jay Robert. Crime Chronology: A Worldwide Record, 1900-1983. 1984
“Earle Nelson Pays with Life; Denies Guilt.” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune. January 13, 1928
“The Gorilla Man.” Northern Territory Times [Darwin, North Australia]. June 24, 1927
“City Warned of ‘Gorilla’ Killer.” Minneapolis Daily Star. June 15, 1927
“New Crime Pinned to Strangler.” Los Angeles Daily Times. August 18, 1926
“S. F. Woman Strangled to Death.” Oakland Tribune. February 21, 1926