Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Lust Murderer

It was a hot day in August when Stephen Nisbet returned home from work to find his 50-year-old wife missing. Although the fixings for dinner were laid out in the kitchen, left in mid-preparation, Nisbet assumed his wife had stepped out for a moment. He knew she couldn't have gone far, for her purse was still in the bedroom.

Mrs. Beata Whithers (CORBIS)
Mrs. Beata Whithers

But Mary Nisbet didn't return home, and hours later a frantic Mr. Nisbet enlisted his neighbors to search for her. Just across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland boarding house operators like the Nisbets were well aware of the evil lurking just miles away; Stephen Nisbet presumed the worst and found it in the empty apartment on the second floor of his home. There, crammed into the lavatory, was Mary Nisbet, ravaged and dead, suffocated by a kitchen dishtowel she had probably carried to the door when Earle Nelson rang. She was probably the most abused of Nelson's victims. Her head had been slammed to the tile floor of the bathroom with such ferocity that broken teeth were strewn around the small room and blood spatters marked every surface. Nelson had strangled her with such rage that he tore the dishtowel that was still tied around her neck like an obscene scarf.

The killings occurred with a frequency that astounded the authorities.

In Portland, Beata Whithers, a 30-something divorcee with a 15-year-old son, was found strangled and raped in the attic of the boarding house she ran. Mrs. Whithers was found stuffed into a trunk.

Two days later, another landlady was found dead and stuffed behind a furnace in her basement. Virginia Grant had been raped and robbed. A few days after Mrs. Grant's body was found hidden behind the furnace, the body of Mabel Fluke was found strangled and sexually assaulted. Her body was hidden in the attic crawl space of her home.

Mabel Fluke, victim (CORBIS)
Mabel Fluke, victim

These murders, undoubtedly the work of the Dark Strangler, marked a departure from his previous signature, but could be explained by criminologists. Nelson had previously been unafraid of having his crimes discovered and had taken little care with hiding his victims. However, killers who have some shame or regret over their crimes will often make token efforts to cover or block the faces of their victims. Sometimes this effort will simply be to turn the head away from the killer's method of exit or to place a cloth over the face to hide it. Other times, more care will be taken to hide the shameful results, like Nelson did with his Portland victims. Except for Beata Whithers, who was placed in a trunk in the attic, each of the other women were discovered fairly soon after their murders. The hiding places Nelson picked were hardly ideal.

But the "personation" of the Portland crime scenes is quite telling about Earle Nelson. Criminologists define personation, and its cognate, depersonalization, as unusual behavior beyond that required to commit the crime. It is personation that helps establish a serial killer's signature and that often provides clues as to a killer's motivation, according to Dr. Robert Keppel in his book, Signature Killers. It is likely that Nelson's personation at the crime scenes indicate his victims represent someone he knew. Perhaps they represented his overbearing grandmother, or possibly the wife who rejected him.

"Depersonalization may be present as evidenced by the victim's face being covered by pillows or towels or by the body being rolled on the stomach (a more subtle form of depersonalization)," wrote John Douglas, et al. in the FBI's Crime Classification Manual. "Undoing represents a form of personation with more obvious meaning. Undoing frequently occurs at the crime scene when... the victim represents someone of significance to the offender."

Almost from the genesis of psychology, practitioners have studied the connection between psychosis, sex and homicide. Not every psychotic turns homicidal, and not every homicidal maniac is a sexual killer. Yet some of the most brutal and disturbing murders in human history have sexual connotations.

Dr. Richard Krafft- Ebing (CORBIS)
Dr. Richard Krafft- Ebing

The first scientific study of sexual homicide was done by psychiatrist R. Krafft-Ebing who in 1898 published Psychopathia Sexualis — the work that gave the world the term "sadism." Krafft-Ebling considered sadism to be the combination of lust and cruelty, whereupon the subject would achieve sexual pleasure from another's physical suffering. Sadism was a subdivision of what Krafft-Ebing called "parasthesia" — a "perversion of the sex instinct." He further divided sadism into fatal and non-fatal types and called a homicide as the result of sadism "lust- murder."

Modern criminologists have turned away from the term lust-murder in favor of "sexual homicide," but for all intents and purposes, the definitions are the same.

There is no doubt that Earle Nelson was a lust-murderer, but whether he was a sadist is not as clear. In fact, the clues he left behind would tend to indicate he did not achieve sexual arousal from hurting his victims, for many of them were not abused until after death. A true sadist must have feedback from his victims, writes John J. Baeza and Brent Turvey in their article "Sadistic Behavior: A Literature Review." Turvey, in a subsequent communication, summed it up this way: "if the victim is not able to provide a suffering response for the offender to appreciate, then the offender, whatever they are doing, is not sadistic."

Brent Turvey
Brent Turvey

If he wasn't sadistic, then what motivated Earle Nelson? Why was he unable to face living, conscious victims? Unfortunately, there are no records left of the conversations psychiatrists had with Earle Nelson either before or after his arrest, so one can only surmise. Aside from his obvious mental defect caused by physical injury, disease or illness, something in his formative years pushed Earle over the edge of sanity. Could it have been his abandonment by his mother and father, followed by the death of the only other woman in his life? Perhaps. Ted Bundy, who was a sadist, was also abandoned.

The similarities of all Earle's victims is significant. They were all close in age to his grandmother. His necrophilia could have arisen out of a desire to hurt his dead grandmother, with his victims playing her part. However, this is all speculation and an academic exercise in any event.

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