Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Growing Up Bad

Criminologists who study serial killers have been able to identify many patterns and motives to help answer the question of why some people find it necessary to torture and kill as many of their fellow humans as they can. It is impossible to predict who will grow up to become a mass murderer, as we are dealing with human nature, but those who track these monsters have noted a number of characteristics that many killers share.

Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives bookcover
Sexual Homicide:
Patterns and Motives


In Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, three of the nation's top serial killer profilers studied in excruciatingly minute detail the lives and crimes of 36 convicted and incarcerated sex killers. The study revealed some consistencies among the murderers, wrote Robert K. Ressler, Ann W. Burgess and John E. Douglas. Psychiatric problems were present in many of the killers' families, most often involving aggression-related ailments. Drug and alcohol problems abounded. Negative relations with male caretakers were present in almost three-quarters of the men (all subjects in the study were male) and the families were more often than not transients.

As for sexual identity formation, three quarters reported sexually stressful events in their childhood; eight of ten encountered pornography as children and 70 percent had particular fetishes or practiced voyeurism.

Robert Ressler (LM)
Robert Ressler (LM)

Ressler, Burgess and Douglas reported that parental involvement was not deterministic in predicting whether a child would grow up to be a serial killer, but in most cases, the parental influence in the child's life was negative.

Earle Nelson never had a chance to know his mother or father. He was just a little over 9 months old in 1898 when his mother died because of a syphilis infection she received from his father. There isn't much known about Frances Nelson, Earle's mother, except that she was apparently quite young when he was born. Earle's father, about whom even less is known, died about six months after his wife, from the same disease. The only thing he gave his son was the last name the boy would shed when he went to live with his grandmother — Ferral. The name, a derivation of the word "feral", meaning "wild or untamed" would have an ironic prescience in life of the man who is called "The Gorilla Killer."

Nelson was raised in San Francisco by his grandmother, a widow, who had two pre-teen children of her own. She was a devout Pentecostal, and religion played an important role in the young boy's home life. Earle Nelson differed little from the subjects of Ressler's study. A dominant female presence was apparent in the formative years of two-thirds of the killers profiled by the three criminologists, and just under half reported that there was no father figure in the home by the time the child reached 12-years-old. That is not to say that two-thirds of all children from single-mother homes or homes where the mother "wears the pants in the family" will grow up to kill, it merely points out that this is a consistent characteristic among serial murderers.

Earle's grandmother was a distant woman, overworked and weary of raising another child alone. She genuinely cared for her grandson, but from an early age he was a difficult child. He was at times hyperactive, and at other times, profoundly depressed. Growing up he cared little for hygiene and manners, despite his grandmother's attempts to raise a God-fearing young gentleman.

One of his most peculiar habits, according to his biographer Harold Schechter, was his style of eating.

Book cover for Bestial
Book cover for Bestial

"At dinner, he would drench his food in olive oil, put his face to the plate, and slurp up his meal like a caged beast at feeding time — much to the disgust of his little tablemates, his Uncle William and Aunt Lillian," Schechter writes in Bestial, the story of Nelson's life and crimes.

The other children in the home began taunting him and calling him an animal. This, combined with the huge difference in their ages, distanced him from the other children in the home who acted as siblings but were, in fact, his aunt and uncle. This feeling of separation from siblings was another common trait found in the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey. "Essentially, these early life attachments (sometimes called bonding) translate into a map of how the child will perceive situations outside the family," Ressler et al. wrote. "The multiple family problems we observed suggest inadequate patterns of relating... Thus, the possibility that most of the offenders experienced positive interactions with family members seems unlikely."

Besides his strange eating habits and bipolar personality, Earle demonstrated a number of other peculiar behaviors. He would often leave for school dressed in one set of clean clothes and return home wearing a completely different outfit, most of them much more shopworn and filthy than those he set out wearing.

He was obsessed with the Bible, although even as a child he failed to heed the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments. He was expelled from grade school at seven years old because of his incorrigibility. Among the other children, he was known as a loner, who was mostly withdrawn but whose temper when aroused was fearful and violent. More than once, an irate shopkeeper who had caught Earle stealing trivial items from his store summoned his grandmother.

At 11-years-old or so, Earle was uncharacteristically showing off for a group of neighborhood youngsters on a bike he had inherited from his uncle. Racing in front of a streetcar, Earle was knocked to the ground when the trolley clipped the back end of the bike. He was rendered unconscious by a horrific head wound and spent the next week floating between awareness and delirium.

Whether this closed head injury would play a role in furthering Nelson's psychotic nature can only be speculated at, for after two weeks of recuperation, Nelson appeared to be "back to normal."

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