Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler


Earle Nelson crossed into Canada from Minnesota and immediately headed toward Winnipeg. His first stop in Winnipeg was to a second-hand clothing store, where he traded his fancy duds for a workman's clothes and $1 cash. Nelson then charmed his way into Catherine Hill's boarding house on Smith Street, a quiet neighborhood near downtown.

It was probably somewhere on Smith Street that Nelson met 14-year-old Lola Cowan, a schoolgirl helping to supplement her family's meager income by selling paper flowers door-to-door. Her family had happened on hard times and with father recovering from pneumonia, the Cowans needed all the income they could earn. No one ever saw Earle Nelson with Lola Cowan, but the incontrovertible fact is that they met somewhere and he succeeded in talking the unfortunate girl into coming back to his boarding house room.

Nelson never slept in the room in Hill's boarding house on Smith Street, but his disappearance wasn't noted for several days. He was seen by other Winnipeg residents and flashed a roll of bills around a second-hand clothing store and barbershop. He confessed his alcoholism to a passenger on a city trolley and gave the man his spare hat as a gift for his sympathetic ear.

The money had come from the home of William Patterson, a God-fearing man who, with his wife, was raising a pair of handsome boys and saving up to start his own business. Nelson had happened across Emily Patterson as she was cleaning house the afternoon after Nelson had fled from the Smith Street boarding house. Somehow he managed to get inside the Patterson home and there he killed and then sexually assaulted Emily Patterson. As he had done so many times before, Nelson hid the woman's body.

Mrs. Emily Patterson crime scene
Mrs. Emily Patterson crime scene

William Patterson was frantic that night as he knelt down to pray for God's help in finding his wife. She had last been seen that morning by a neighbor, and hadn't been by to pick up her children from an after school play date with friends. At 11:30 p.m., with his sons tucked into bed and reassured that "momma will be home soon," Patterson knelt by his bed and asked God to "direct him to where his wife was," he would later testify. God answered his request, for as Patterson stood up from his prayer his leg lifted the long bedspread revealing a glimpse of his wife's favorite wool sweater. When Patterson reached underneath the bed, he felt his wife's cold hand and knew immediately she was dead.

Winnipeg was reeling from the news of Emily Patterson's death when the police visited Catherine Hill on Smith Street. They had wasted no time in assuming the American Dark Strangler had headed to Canada and were conducting a sweep of all the rooming houses in the city. Hill was cooperative, but she couldn't imagine that the nice Christian man who had rented a room in her house a few days before could be whom the police were searching for. She had not seen the pleasant Mr. Woodcoats since he had paid her a dollar with the promise of three more on Friday, but that wasn't so unusual. However, when the police left, Catherine went directly to his room and when no one responded to her knocks, she let herself in.

The room stunk of decay, as if the man had left some meat uncovered, but the bed had not been slept in and the towel she had left was unused. Hill then began to suspect that Mr. Woodcoats had skipped out on her and that perhaps she should notify the police. As Mr. Hill headed to the precinct house, another boarder, descending the stairs, happened to glance at just the right angle into "Mr. Woodcoats'" room to see something that looked like a mannequin or doll under the bed. Coming closer for a better look, it was clear that the boarder had discovered the missing Lola Cowan. Like so many others before her, she had been strangled and raped.

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