Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Descent to Madness

When Nelson's grandmother died two years after the great San Francisco earthquake, his aunt and her husband took in the 14-year-old, who had dropped out of school for the last time. Ten years his senior, Lillian was genuinely fond of her nephew, and like her mother, tended to overlook his eccentricities. Family, to her, was all-important, and up until the end, she stuck by her nephew despite his heinous crimes.

Earle passed through a series of menial jobs, keeping one until his strange behavior or laziness made it impossible to keep him on. A one or two-month stint at a job was a long stretch for the young man, whose work ethic was severely lacking. He would rarely finish an assigned task and he often just wandered off a work site, never to return. Just as he had as a young boy, Earle would often leave home in work togs only to return later in a completely different set of clothes. He never outgrew his rough temper and although she loved her nephew as family, Lillian was clearly afraid of the teen.

"He was just like a child, and we considered him like a child, and of course, we would never go too far with him, because there was always the fear of him," Lillian told a newspaper reporter when news of her ward's arrest for a series of murders reached San Francisco years later.

As a young man, Nelson once again shared many characteristics with the subjects of Ressler's study. He was a compulsive masturbator, a trait held in common with more than 80 percent of those serial killers interviewed. The only more common trait among the murderers was a tendency to daydream, something Nelson also did for hours on end. He reportedly had a voracious sexual appetite, admitting that he began frequenting the prostitutes near Fisherman's Wharf at the age of 15.

At the same time, Earle Nelson began drinking heavily, often disappearing for days at a time on alcoholic binges. He spent his money — whatever he didn't turn over to his aunt for room and board -- on the most sensational and lurid literature of the day as his descent into madness accelerated. Nelson carried on conversations with invisible friends and enemies, was known to walk around the house on his hands and increasingly frequently came home battered and bruised, as if he had been in a fight.

Aunt Lillian, now raising two children of her own, as well as her mentally ill nephew, had given up trying to discipline the hulking teen and wavered between wanting Earle just to move out and her misguided protective nature toward her kin. From his unknown, but obviously illicit sources of income, Earle was a strong financial contributor to the household, albeit one whose lifestyle habits were undoubtedly more trouble than they were worth. Unable to openly confront her nephew, Lillian acted to protect her children as much as possible, but prayed for help to solve her familial problem. Earle took care of the situation on his own.

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