Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Room to Kill

With no sign of the killer, the story soon dropped off the front pages of the San Francisco newspapers, and the only mention of boarding houses and rooms to rent were in the classified ads on the back pages. This is where Earle Nelson found his victims, and that is how he found Mrs. Lillian St. Mary in June 1926. A widow with a grown son who lived at home, Mrs. St. Mary had begun taking in boarders to supplement her meager income. She had a number of vacant rooms when Earle Nelson came to call, and she was eager to show the large but friendly gentleman the apartment that had recently been vacated.

On their way up the stairs, Nelson told Lillian he had just moved to the Bay area and was looking for an inexpensive room because he was saving money to get married. Lillian opened the vacant second-floor apartment and stepped inside, talking about weekly rent and towels and what time dinner was served. Hearing a click like the sound of lock being set, she turned and in an instant Nelson was upon her, his thick hands easily fitting around her neck, throttling the life out of the unfortunate woman. If she tried to cry for help, no one ever heard her.

One of Mrs. St. Mary's other boarders was on his way up to his third-floor bedroom when he noticed the door to the vacant apartment was open. Stepping inside, he could see a woman's feet on the made-up bed. That was odd, he thought and he moved into the bedroom to see if something was amiss.

Lillian St. Mary lay on the bed, her eyes wide open and bloodshot. They bulged out as if she was still suffering from shock or fright. Her hair was disheveled, but she still wore her glasses, which led police to believe she hadn't put up much of a fight. Her clothes were torn and her dress was pushed up around her waist. Her legs were splayed open. The man didn't have to come any closer to see that Mrs. St. Mary was dead.

The post-mortem revealed that she had been strangled by a man's bare hands and that he had apparently sat with his full weight on her chest as he strangled the life out of her. After she was dead, her assailant raped her. He then neatly folded her overcoat and hat — she had apparently been on her way out as he met her. Her hat he placed next to her head, her overcoat he slipped under her feet. The entire attack had been so quiet that the man living below the second-story room had never heard a thing.

The police knew the same man was responsible for all three killings, but again the only description they had was of a large, swarthy man. This time, a streetcar conductor had seen such a man acting strangely around the area of Mrs. St. Mary's boarding house. As the press began writing stories about the Dark Strangler, who could seemingly slip in and out of homes unnoticed. The police chief warned single women who rented rooms to be wary of any man who approached, and said never to show a room to such a man alone. It was only a matter of time, the chief said, before the police would have the fiend off the street.

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