Hunting Grounds: Many animals are known to hunt their prey on specific grounds. They are highly territorial and subdue their prey in certain regions. The same is true of many serial killers. They exhibit behavior similar to that of their four-legged counterparts by committing their murders within certain parameters. Some, like Jack the Ripper, stick to a specific neighborhood. He claimed all five of his victims in Whitechapel, London. Other killers restrict themselves to a specific city, like David Berkowitz. The “Son of Sam” killed all of his victims in various boroughs of New York. Some killers claim their prey in specific counties, like the Green River killer who murdered people between Seattle and Tacoma.
The type of victim preferred by the killer plays a key role in the selection of territory. For instance, a killer that preys on prostitutes would be most likely to hunt in red-light districts where there is an abundance of prey. Another factor that is pertinent to the selection of territory is familiarity. Criminologists refer to this factor as the killer’s “comfort zone.” Many killers prefer familiar areas. They know the lay of the land, which allows them to feel confident and in control. It is for this reason that many killers, like John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer, prefer to commit their atrocities in their own homes.
A Different Kind of Killer: Nomadic killers are the antithesis of the aforementioned home-based killers. Nomadic killers are the least territorial of all and travel very frequently. They are incredibly mobile and often use public transportation to reach their destinations. They journey across states, counties, countries and sometimes continents, killing as they go. Such killers are often very elusive and are able to remain ahead of the authorities. It is not uncommon for investigators to fail to establish links between similar killings that occur in different regions. Earle Leonard Nelson was a nomadic killer. He killed in several U.S. cities before traveling to Canada where he was finally apprehended.
The Early Years: Nelson was born on May 12, 1897 in Philadelphia. He was orphaned at nine months of age, when both of his parents died of syphilis. He was fostered and raised by his grandmother who was a fanatically religious woman. As a result, Nelson became obsessed with the Bible and often quoted scriptures. As a child, Nelson would often exhibit uncontrollable rages. He was expelled from school at the age of seven for his outbursts and poor behavior. By that time, he had already merited a reputation as a thief and shoplifter. At the age of 10, he suffered a head injury when he was struck by a trolley. He remained in a coma for approximately one week before he regained consciousness. Some feel that the brain damage that he sustained as a result of the accident was to blame for his future psychopathic behavior. Others feel that he exhibited warning signs of such behavior prior to his injury. From that point on, his outbursts worsened. He suffered from dizziness and crippling headaches for the remainder of his life. He dropped out of school at the age of fourteen and took several menial jobs. He supplemented his modest earnings with burglary. At that point, he lived with his aunt; his grandmother passed away. Nelson’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. He was entirely obsessed with the Book of Revelation, he exhibited a Tourette’s-like inclination to shout obscenities for no apparent reason and he often walked on his hands whenever his aunt had company. In 1915, he served two years in San Quentin Prison for housebreaking. Upon his release from prison, Nelson tried to enlist in the Navy. He was found to be insane upon evaluation ergo he was rejected.
Criminal Behavior: On May 21, 1918, Leonard attempted to rape a neighborhood girl, but was halted when the girl’s father caught him. He was committed to a mental institution, from which he escaped on his third attempt. At 22 years of age, Nelson married a woman who was 36 years his senior. Mary Martin soon realized that her husband was a madman. When she was in the hospital recuperating from a serious ailment, he tried to rape her. Fortunately, members of the staff heeded her calls for help and Nelson’s attempt to rape her was unsuccessful. Mary left Nelson and he was once again committed to a mental institution. He escaped in November 1923. Nothing is known of his activities over the next two years. It is only known that in February 1926, he embarked on a rampage that would cause him to be considered the most prolific serial killer of the time.
The Roaring Twenties: The 1920’s was a colorful decade. WWI veterans were returning home and women were given suffrage in 1920. The decade symbolized a break with former traditions. Jazz music was dominant. The first movie to feature sound (The Jazz Singer) was released in 1927. Changes in women’s attitudes and fashion brought about the “flappers.” Immigrants were pouring into America from all corners of the globe. Unprecedented industrial growth made anything seem possible. Although it was a simpler time, there was plenty of crime to go around. Much of it was perpetrated by Prohibition-related gangsters, like the “Purple Gang.” who tried to capitalize on the outlaw of liquor. The “Untouchables” led by Eliot Ness were on a mission to enforce Prohibition and capture the elusive mobster, Al Capone. Organized crime was not the only kind of crime that was prevalent during the twenties. Although the term “serial killer” would not be coined until 50 years later, many of them were living and killing in the twenties. While across the Atlantic Henri Landru was killing in France and Peter Kurten was killing in Germany, America had its own serial killing monster, Leonard Earle Nelson.
The First of Many Murders: It was February 20, 1926 when Nelson showed up at the doorstep of Mrs. Clara Newman, 60. Mrs. Newman was a widow who ran a boardinghouse in San Francisco and advertised a vacant room. The young man had nothing with him but a Bible and asked if he could see the available room. No sooner than he had the landlady alone, did he strangle her to death with his bare hands. Once she was dead, he raped her corpse and dragged her body into the lavatory, where it was later found by her nephew. Landladies in San Francisco were terrified at the news of Mrs. Newman’s death and were on their guard for the Bible-totting monster.
A Triple Murder: The killer went north, stopping for three days in Portland, Oregon. He claimed three lives during his short stay from October 19 to October 21. Beatrice Withers, 35, was raped, strangled and stashed in a trunk in an attic. Her valuables were missing. Virginia Grant, 59, was strangled, raped and stuffed behind a furnace. Her valuables were also taken. Mabel Fluke was the last to be killed in Oregon. She was murdered in the same manner as the others and was later found in the attic of her home.
Linking the Murders: Investigators began to notice a striking similarity in the San Francisco and Portland murders. This was very fortunate considering that officials often overlook the possibility of a single killer being responsible for crimes in various areas. The Portland detectives enlisted the help of the San Francisco police in their investigation. They were perplexed by the mobility of the killer and suspected that he might be a traveling salesman.
The killer returned to California to commit his next murder. On November 18, Nelson strangled the wife of a man named William Edmunds.
The Killer Travels On: On November 24, 1926, Nelson arrived in Seattle, Washington. He showed up at the home of Florence Monks who advertised a house for sale. A realtor later arrived with a prospective buyer and found the house ransacked and Florence’s body rolled up in a rug. The next day, the killer was in Oregon City, where he committed his next atrocity. Blanche Meyers, 48, was strangled with her own apron and stuffed under a bed in her home.
The Search Continues: The police interviewed the friends and relatives of the victims and were able to obtain detailed descriptions of the valuables that were taken. Three landladies reported buying some jewelry from a lodger. They were able to give a description of the man: dark messy hair, piercing blue eyes and long ape-like arms. Officers had a fairly good idea of the type of person they were pursuing, but finding him would prove to be a difficult task.
Eastward Bound: As detectives were searching the West Coast, the killer traveled east. On December 23, he killed Elizabeth Brerard, 49, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Three days later, Nelson killed newlywed Bonnie Pace, 23, in Kansas City. Five days after that, he committed the double murder of Germania Harpin, 28, and her 8-month-old son. Mary McConnell, 53, was strangled on April 26, 1927 in Philadelphia. Approximately one month later, Jennie Randolph, 53, was killed in Buffalo, New York. On June 1, Nelson murdered Fannie May, 53, and her tenant, Maureen Oswald in Detroit. Only two days later, Cecilia Setsima, 27, was killed in Chicago.
Crossing the Border: Nelson headed further north, crossing the border into Winnipeg, Canada. He visited Mrs. Catherine Hill’s boardinghouse and rented a room on June 8. That same day, he strangled a 13-year-old girl named Lola Cowan, the daughter of one of the other tenants.
The Final Murder: Nelson took his last life on June 9, 1927. He strangled and bludgeoned a housewife named Emily Patterson. He raped her corpse and stuffed her under her bed. William Patterson returned from work to find his beloved murdered and hurried to the police. Patterson mentioned some articles of clothing that were missing and a description of the missing items was circulated. It was then obvious that the man that was dubbed by the media as the “Dark Strangler” was in Canada.
A Break in the Case: A second-hand dealer reported purchasing articles of clothing that fit the police description on June 10. He gave the police a detailed description of the man from whom he purchased the clothes and a composite sketch was created and distributed throughout the province. On June 12, police were investigating the disappearance of Lola Cowan when they called on Catherine Hill. She recalled an odd lodger who disappeared without notice. The police asked Catherine to open the room that the alleged lodger stayed in and there they found the body of the 13-year-old girl, hidden under the bed. The next day, someone reported purchasing a wedding band from a man who claimed to have just gotten divorced. The ring belonged to Emily Patterson.
A Familiar Face: On June 15, a storekeeper recognized the man pictured in the wanted poster in the local post office. He contacted the police and they tracked down the assailant, who laughed when he was told that he was being arrested for murder.
The Sentencing: Nelson was being held in a prison in the town of Killarney. He soon escaped, but was recaptured twelve hours later. He was transferred to Winnipeg where he stood trial on November 1, 1927. He was found sane and competent to stand trial and sentenced to death. He was hanged on January 13, 1928. His final words were, “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 MO: Nelson was ultimately charged with the murders of twenty-two women. All of his victims were landladies. Nelson strangled each of them with his bare hands, except for two of the victims. For those two, he used an apron and a scarf. All of the victims were posthumously raped and sexually violated. All of the victims’ corpses were stashed in small spaces within the house. He gained entry by posing as a prospective lodger and killed the women the second that he had them alone. The only exception to this was Lola Cowan, who was the daughter of another tenant.
More Victims?: Very little is known about Nelson’s activities before 1926. That year there was a triple homicide in Newark, New Jersey that was typical of Nelson’s killing style. Rose Valentine and Margaret Stanton were strangled to death. The third woman, Laura Tidor was shot when she tried to assist Rose and Margaret. All three of the women were raped after they were killed. Two of them were hidden under beds and the third was rolled in a carpet. On March 2, a landlady named Laura Beale was found dead in the kitchen of her boardinghouse in San Jose. She had been strangled and raped. The two murders remained unconnected until a third tied them together. The body of Lillian St Mary was found naked under the bed of a room that she was trying to rent out. Anna Russell and Mary Nesbit were two more of Nelson’s known victims.