Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

The Dark Strangler

Clara Newmann (CORBIS)
Clara Newmann

Clara Newmann may have been frail for even a 62-year-old widow, but she apparently had a sharp head on her shoulders. She operated several boarding houses in the San Francisco area and also had large landholdings back east. Clara was known for her fastidious housekeeping and her no-nonsense approach to the renters who lodged in her boarding houses. She was strict, but fair, and no drinking men or sailors need apply to rent one of her rooms. She had a vacancy in the Pierce Street home where she resided and had placed a "To Rent" sign in the front window.

Earle Stanley Nelson, dressed in an uncharacteristically neat suit, approached Mrs. Newmann's front door and rang the bell. Clara herself opened the door and Nelson tipped his fine homburg to the lady. He introduced himself — what name he used was never known — and expressed interest in the vacancy. Clara, taken by the courteous stranger let him in and in doing so, voluntarily admitted her killer into her home.

It was a chilly Saturday morning in February and Nelson had no way of knowing whether anyone else was in the home at the time. In fact, Clara Newmann's nephew was home alone, having seen his wife and daughter off to the store and a movie matinee. Sitting in his second-floor apartment, he felt a chill in the air and grumbled to himself once again about the finicky furnace in the basement. Merton Newmann Sr. headed down the stairs and on his way to the basement passed the kitchen that was filled with the pungent smell of frying sausage. He looked inside expecting to see his aunt, only to find a frying pan with a sausage cooling over an extinguished flame. Something must have interrupted Aunt Clara, he thought to himself and continued through the kitchen to the basement door.

In the hallway, he saw a large gentleman with a hat pulled low over his eyes and his coat collar turned up, opening the front door as if to exit.

"Can I help you?" Merton asked, surprised by the dark stranger. He couldn't get a good look at the man, except to see that his skin tone was dark Caucasian.

The man, startled, said "Tell the landlady I will return in an hour. I wish to rent the bedroom." He then turned without waiting for a response and left. By the time Merton got to the front door to look after the man, he had already made it down the steps and around the house and was gone into the cold morning air.

Merton fiddled with the furnace and returned to his bookkeeping chores in his room. Several hours later he wandered downstairs to see his aunt. As he reached the kitchen he saw that it was exactly as he left it several hours before, except the sausage was now sitting in a puddle of congealed fat. He inquired with the other residents about his aunt's whereabouts, but they were unhelpful.

The boarders began searching the house and soon happened on the corpse of Clara Newmann. Sources differ as to where she was found, with the more lurid accounts claiming she was found propped on a toilet seat, her housecoat up on her hips. Others said she was found in the vacant attic apartment, again her clothes bunched up around her waist. She was quite dead and had clearly been roughed up before she was murdered.

The autopsy conducted that evening revealed she had been strangled, most likely by bare hands. What was even more disturbing was a fact not shared with the press — Clara Newmann had been sexually assaulted, but not until after she was dead.

The murder was dutifully reported in the papers but because this was the first homicide of its kind, police did not realize they had anything other than a run-of-the mill maniac on their hands.

A little over two weeks later, in nearby San Jose, a second woman was murdered under similar circumstances. She was also a rooming house manager, a married woman by the name of Laura Beal. A senior citizen, Mrs. Beal died in almost an identical way as Clara Newmann. Her husband, a real estate agent, returned home from work to find his wife missing — a strange occurrence. Again the borders began searching throughout the house and once again the victim was found nude from the waist down in a vacant apartment. Laura Beal had been strangled with the silk belt from her dressing gown. The garrote was tied so tightly around her neck the skin had been broken. Once again, a post-mortem revealed she had been raped after she was dead.

The papers immediately latched on to the fact that two women had died under the same brutal conditions and began trumpeting that a mysterious fiend was loose in the area. Countless tips flowed into police headquarters, but no leads of any significance appeared. The only descriptions the authorities had to go on were the brief glimpse Merton Newmann had of the dark stranger and a "sallow-faced man hurrying from the house" of Laura Beal, Schechter wrote.

Frightened as they were, it didn't take long for Bay-area residents to put the Dark Strangler, as the papers dubbed Nelson, out of their minds. Nearly a month went by with no leads and no sign of the killer. Police, reporters and the general public began to think that the maniac had fled for some area where he was even less known. They were wrong.

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