Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Filling in the Blanks

Earle Leonard Nelson, police mugshot
Earle Leonard
Nelson, police
mugshot

A parade of witnesses from Canada and the United States identified Earle Nelson as the man they had encountered during the Dark Strangler's killing spree. By the end of Nelson's first week in custody, more than 40 people had viewed him in lineups or photographs and placed him at or near the scene of a murder. Most damning was the Winnipeg boarding house keeper, Catherine Hill, who positively identified him as the man who had rented the room in which Lola Cowan had been brutally murdered. Witnesses as far back as Merton Newmann, the only person who had seen Nelson within moments of him having committed a crime, pointed him out. Almost to a person they pointed out his dark piercing eyes as being his most memorable feature.

As the witnesses and police from various jurisdictions pooled their evidence, a more complete picture of his modus operandi evolved. He usually killed shortly after he had been shaved and barbered, then let his appearance grow more shaggy until the need to murder became unbearable. From his wife, Mary, police were able to report that Earle had not been home at the time any of the slayings occurred. Other evidence that Nelson was the killer was the fact that a knife with a blade that appeared burned by electric spark was found in his possession. The killer of the landlady in Detroit had used an electrical cord cut with a knife to commit the crime; at the time, police predicted the man would have a knife with an electric burn.

Nelson, who had finally admitted his identity, continued to maintain his innocence. "Murder just isn't possible for a man of my high Christian ideals," Schechter records Nelson as saying to a Manitoba newspaper.

The two men appointed to defend Nelson after his preliminary hearing immediately began pressing for a postponement. They argued that pretrial publicity was convicting Earle before trial and that anyway, Earle was nutty as a fruitcake and unable to help in his defense.

Within weeks of his final capture, Nelson was indicted for murders in San Francisco, Portland, Detroit, Philadelphia and Buffalo. It was clear, however, that he would be tried first in Manitoba, which at the time still had the death penalty. Nelson likely would never make it to the United States to answer for his crimes.

A parade of detectives appeared before him in Winnipeg, but Nelson refused to help them solve any of their open Gorilla murder cases. He continually expressed his innocence and godliness, and declined to get himself hanged to help close case files. He was officially linked to 22 murders, beginning February 20, 1926 and ending with the murders of Lola Cowan and Emily Patterson on June 9-10, 1927. Averaging slightly more than one murder per month, the actual dates are much more clumped. There were no murders between mid-August 1926 and mid-October, and five between June 1, 1926 and June 10. There were, however, several homicides where the m.o. was suspiciously like Nelson's but without enough evidence to formally link him to the crimes.

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