Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Earle in Love

Nelson turned up at the home of Aunt Lillian, who dutifully took him in and helped him find a job as a janitor at St. Mary's Hospital near San Francisco. It was there that Nelson found the woman of his dreams, a woman who resembled his grandmother. She was Mary Martin, 58, a shy old maid who worked in the housekeeping department of the hospital. Reclusive and introverted, she attracted Earle because of her latent maternal instincts.

It didn't take long for Earle to begin talking of marriage, and it didn't take long for Mary to accept his proposal. Nevertheless, before she would marry him, she wanted him to agree to have a Catholic rite wedding. Earle didn't object in the least.

"Always open to varieties of religious experience, he had no objection to a marriage conducted according to the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church," Schechter wrote.

While Mary might have entered into the marriage expecting the relationship to be a convergence of equals, what Earle had planned is unknown. He clearly had no expectation of having a marriage in the normal sense of the word. Consciously or unconsciously, he forced Mary into the role of a domineering mother-type, while he played the part of the disobedient son. Even Mary, with her old-school Catholic upbringing of marriage for better or worse, until death do us part, considered her relationship with Earle to be "a trying experience."

He had a mania for changing clothes, usually from a neat and clean outfit to something horribly dirty or inappropriate — a golf outfit including plaid plus fours or a sailor suit, for example. He even made his own clothes from Mary's dresses, although his skills as a tailor were laughable.

Schechter reports that Nelson refused to bathe, practiced intolerable table manners and he had an insatiable sex drive. Every night he required release, and on the nights when Mary was unwilling or unable to participate, he openly took matters into his own hands as Mary, a devout Catholic raised to believe masturbation was sinful, lay in shock, disgust or embarrassment beside him.

At first Nelson was demonstrably affectionate with Mary, but soon his affection crossed the line to possessive jealousy. He fumed when she talked to any other man, including her brother, and would become violent — the attacks directed at inanimate objects, not his wife — when he thought she was being overly friendly.

Nelson's selection of Mary Martin as a wife is interesting considering the type of victims he ended up choosing as a killer. In many cases the victims were similar to Mary in the sense that they were spinsters or widows and older. The resemblance to the first domineering woman in his life, his grandmother, was similar in most cases.

Serial killers for the most part are made, not born. They develop over time because of mental disease or defect and environment. A sexual predator like Earle Nelson is likely to choose victims that have some symbolic meaning for him. In some cases, researchers have found, killers will attack victims who resemble an unattainable sexual object like a woman who scorned them once, or a family member who was out of reach because of cultural taboo. Others will lash out at victims who represent an oppressor, such as a domineering parent — usually a maternal figure.

Equally common is the escalation of criminal activity by serial killers. What ends up being a violent homicide with sexual overtones usually begins as a fantasy in the killer's mind, according to noted criminologist Robert Ressler. The next step may involve play acting, such as finding a sexual partner willing to act out a role in the future killer's fantasy, or cruelty to animals, depending on the nature of the fantasy. The study noted above found hiring prostitutes and harming animals to be present in the lives of many convicted sex offenders.

For a time, perhaps, Mary satisfied Earle's sexual hunger, but obviously she soon became less and less desirable to Earle and he began looking elsewhere for ways to sate his demons. For more than two-dozen North American women, satisfying Earle Nelson's hunger would mean their deaths.

Over time, Earle descended further into madness. He suffered terrible migraines which no medicine or maternal care from his wife could ease. During one such attack, while he was at work, Earle fell from a ladder and struck his head on the ground knocking him unconscious. He was hospitalized, but fled the hospital after two days, his head wrapped in thick white bandages.

The head injury, the second of his life, further loosened his grasp on sanity and he began to see visions and hear voices, often of a religious nature. He became even more violent and paranoid toward his wife and for the first time, Mary began to fear him. It took some convincing, but eventually Mary told Earle she would not accompany him when he wanted to leave their home in Palo Alto after causing a scene with their employer. He left without her, but returned the next day begging her to take him back. Mary wisely refused — he undoubtedly would have killed her eventually — and Earle Nelson left to vent his anger someplace else.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'