Earle Nelson used his abnormally large hands to strangle and rape at least 22 women and one baby in the U.S and Canada from 1925 to 1927. Those big hands earned him the nickname “The Gorilla Killer,” according to the Winnipeg Sun. He was finally caught and convicted for two murders — one victim was a 14-year-old girl — in Winnipeg that year.
Though the nomenclature “serial killer” was not part of the vernacular yet, Nelson certainly was one. Over the decades people who are driven to murder have become an endless source of fascination for some, and one of the things we always wonder is how does a person become so murderous? What makes them so compelled to brutally attack and kill a stranger?
Naturally, we look at their childhoods, where often the seeds are planted. Those seeds are then often cultivated by various adolescent experiences and the eventual killer’s own fantasies as they often take baby steps into violence, stalking, or attempts to assault a prospective victim.
Nelson’s childhood started off tragically when both of his parents died of syphilis by the time he was 15 months old, according to Radford University’s Department of Psychology. His maternal grandparents took Nelson in. Radford describes Nelson’s grandmother as a “very strict Pentecostal,” which according to the website Christianity, can mean that certain ways of dress, entertainment, dancing, or mixing with the opposite sex are prohibited. They believe in divine healing through prayer and speaking in tongues.
Earle Nelson endured a traumatic brain injury as a child
According to Radford, the strict religious upbringing may have contributed to Nelson’s hatred of women, as he may have learned to view all women like the type of domineering women his grandmother was, which he could have resented. By the time Nelson was 7 years old he was expelled from school due to behavior problems, and at age 11 he was hit by a streetcar, incurring a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that would leave a hole in his head, per Radford. Doctors didn’t think he’d recover, but he did.
In his early teen years, his grandmother died and he went to live with an aunt, Lillian Fiban. By age 15 he was drinking and picking up prostitutes, Radford reported. He also did odd things like go to school in clean clothes and come home in someone else’s dirty clothes, and he was teased about his large hands by other kids. He made it to 10th grade but did not get a high school degree.
When Earle Nelson was 18 he was sentenced to two years in San Quentin state prison in California for robbery but was paroled in 1916 at age 19, yet his life of crime was just getting started. His mental health would continue to deteriorate as his taste for strangling landladies and then having sex with their corpses went into a fever pitch from February 1926 to June 1927.
Nelson was hanged to death after his murder convictions in Canada in 1928. He was 30.
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