Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

The Roaring 20s

Thrill Killers Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb (CORBIS)
Thrill Killers Nathan Leopold &
Richard Loeb (CORBIS)

For most people crime in the United States during the 1920s begins and ends with the Prohibition-related gangsters. Others, whose interest in the history of criminal activity is more versed, may point out that the Roaring 20s was the decade of thrill killers Leopold and Loeb, the Lindbergh kidnapping and the always perplexing murders of the Rev. Edward Hall and Mrs. Eleanor Mills. Glamorous, shocking and unsolved crimes held the public riveted, and have gained immortality while other horrific events seem to have faded from popular culture.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

It may have been a simpler time, but there was still plenty of crime news to keep the country reading their newspapers and listening to their radios. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Eliot Ness and the "Untouchables", the Purple Gang in Detroit and even the Teapot Dome Scandal all played well during the age of Jazz Journalism. In America, serial killing (the term would not even be coined for nearly 50 years) somehow escaped the public's fascination.

Across the Atlantic, Henri Landru, the French Bluebeard, who killed women for the love of money, ushered in the 1920s. The decade was closed by an even more terrible killer, Peter Kürten, the Düsseldorf Vampire, a maniac whose lust murders remain some of the most odious and bizarre crimes in the annals of homicide.

However, serial killing wasn't something reserved for the continent. North America had its share during the 1920s and none was more prolific than Earle Nelson, known at the time as "the Gorilla Killer." For more than a year, Nelson roamed the United States, seemingly able to slay at will, slipping into and out of boarding houses and suburban homes with impunity.

and Peter Kurten mugshot (CORBIS)
and Peter Kürten
mugshot (CORBIS)

Also known as the Dark Strangler, his body count was in the high 20s, and unlike most serial killers, he rarely used a weapon. Nelson, it seems, enjoyed choking the life out of his victims. His prodigious strength earned him the nickname Gorilla Killer. Police began to think that like a real-life version of Edgar Allen Poe's Rue Morgue murderer, this killer was inhuman. No normal human had the might to strangle a healthy, middle-aged woman to death and handle the bodies the way this killer did, the police and newspapers surmised. Only a specter could slip in and out of populated areas like this maniac, and only a monster would do the things to the dead that this killer seemed to enjoy doing. Nevertheless, when lawmen caught up with Earle Nelson, they soon found out that he was all too human.

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