Earle Nelson’s mother and father both died of syphilis before Nelson reached the age of two years. He was subsequently sent to be raised by his maternal grandmother, a devout Pentecostal. Around the age of 10, Nelson collided with a streetcar while riding his bicycle and remained unconscious for six days afterward. After he awoke, his behavior became erratic, and he suffered from frequent headaches and memory loss. When he was 14, his grandmother died, and Nelson went to live with his aunt, Lillian, and her husband. Nelson began his criminal career early, and was sentenced to two years in San Quentin State Prison in 1915 after breaking into a cabin he believed had been abandoned. Later, he was committed to the Napa State Mental Hospital after behaving oddly and erratically during a short stint in the United States Navy. He managed to escape three times from the mental hospital before staff stopped trying to find him. Earle Nelson began committing sex crimes when he was 21 years old. In 1921, he attempted to molest a 12-year-old girl named Mary Summers, but was thwarted when she screamed and attracted help. He was committed once again to the Napa State Mental Hospital. After several escapes and attempted escapes, he was released from the institution in 1925. He started his killing spree early in 1926. He killed his first victim, Clara Newman, on February 20, 1926, and two weeks later killed his second, Laura Beal.
Earle Nelson’s victims were mostly landladies, whom he would approach on the pretext of renting a room. He often studied his worn Bible, using it to keep his victim at ease and off-guard. Once he had gained their trust, he would kill them (almost always by strangling) and engage in necrophilia with the corpse. He would often hide the body, leaving it under the nearest bed. By using false names and moving on quickly after he committed the murders, Nelson avoided capture for 18 months. He killed victims in several West Coast cities (including San Francisco, San Jose, and Portland, Oregon), throughout the upper Midwest, and finally in Canada. Police were hampered in their efforts by the fact that serial murder was a relatively unknown crime. They were also slowed down by a number of mistaken arrests of innocent men. Nelson was arrested twice in Canada, where his murder spree ended. He was first arrested on June 15, 1927, in Wakopa, Manitoba, not long after murdering two women. These victims were 14-year-old Lola Cowan and a housewife, Emily Patterson, whose body was found by her husband beneath their bed.
Earle Nelson was incarcerated in a local jail in Wakopa after giving police the alias “Virgil Wilson”. He escaped from jail that same evening. However, he made the mistake of trying to catch the same train that was transporting members of the Winnipeg police. He was then recaptured and arrested again the next morning by an officer from the Crystal City, Manitoba, police department. His trial began on November 1, 1927. His lawyer, James Herbert Stitt, attempted to portray Nelson as mentally ill and therefore not responsible for his crimes. The jury found him guilty of murdering Emily Patterson. Patterson was found strangled beneath her bed by her husband, who had knelt by the bed to pray for her safe return after she went missing on the afternoon of June 9, 1927. She was Nelson’s fifth victim in just ten days. Earle Nelson was hanged in the Vaughan Street Jail in Winnipeg at 7:30 a.m. on January 13, 1928.
- May, 12, 1897
- San Francisco, California
- January, 13, 1928
- Winnipeg, Manitoba
Cause of Death
- execution by hanging