Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler


Nelson's first attempt at murder was a dismal failure and was not in keeping with the modus operandi he would later adopt. In all likelihood he was reeling from his expulsion by Mary and in such a rage that any target he could find would do. He found his prospective victim playing inside her home on May 19, 1921. Pretending to be a plumber sent to fix a gas leak, Nelson was admitted to the home of Charles Summers by his 24-year-old son, Charles Jr. Nelson went immediately to the basement, where he found 12-year-old Mary Summers playing.  Whether or not he knew she was there is unknown, but he immediately set upon the young girl and tried to strangle her.

Mary Summers fought back bravely and, alerted to Mary's screams, her elder brother rushed to the basement and met Nelson on the stairs. The assailant pushed Summers out of the way and fled the house with Summers in pursuit. They fought in the street, and finally Nelson was able to issue a staggering blow to Charles and while the young man lay stunned on the ground, Nelson managed to slip away between the houses.

The authorities scoured the neighborhood looking for Mary Summers' attacker and two hours later, managed to capture Earle Nelson as he rode down a quiet avenue on a trolley. Photos taken of Nelson after his arrest for her attack show a disheveled young man with many nasty scratches on his face. It didn't take long for Nelson's bizarre behavior to shock his jailers. On his first evening in jail, he plucked his eyebrows completely with just his fingernails and began howling about seeing faces on the wall.

By the time his wife was alerted to her husband's incarceration, Nelson had been transferred from the jail to the city hospital. There, Mary encountered Nelson lying tied to a bed wearing a straightjacket and complaining about the faces that were watching him from the wall. For the first time, Mary learned the truth about her husband. He was a lunatic who had been hospitalized once before, had a prison record and was a deserter from the military. Still she stuck by him and began involuntary hospitalization procedures in an effort to keep him from prison.

A month after he attacked Mary Summers, Earle was brought before a judge to determine his legal competency. Psychiatrists wrote that Nelson was "apathetic, eccentric, noisy, destructive and incendiary." Further, the examining doctors warned that Earle Nelson was "restless, violent, dangerous, excited and depressed." He was dangerous, the doctors warned, to "wife and self." Their conclusion was that Earle was "so far disordered in his mind to endanger health and person," whereupon the judge filed the commitment order writing that he was "dangerous to be at large." Earle was transported that very day back to the Napa State Hospital — the place he had escaped from three times already.

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