Earle Leonard Nelson (born Earle Leonard Ferral) was born to two syphilis-infected parents and was orphaned within a couple of years of his birth.
Raised by his grandmother, Earle showed signs of “arrested development” in his youth, which only got worse as the years went by.
In his late teens, Earle was prone to spend days or weeks away from home, with no explanation for his absence. Before he reached the age of 22, he already had two murders under his belt and a bride waiting at home who was old enough to be his grandmother.
But, as one might expect, the marriage was short-lived; at least when it came to sharing a domicile. After a vicious attack on his wife, Earle set out on a cross country killing spree.
First, he terrorized the hostesses of boarding houses in the California bay area then traveled to the North West where he murdered and raped (yes, in that order) boarding house proprietors in Portland and Washington. Then, working his way East, Earle was connected to several brutal murders and postmortem rapes of elderly women in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Then he went bumbling into Canada. While there he killed a young woman who fell for his pretense as a prospective buyer of the home she and her husband had for sale. His second Canadian victim would be a fourteen year-old girl who was peddling her paper flowers door-to-door, trying to raise much needed funds for her family as her father had fallen ill and was unable to work.
Canada is also where this serial killer would spend a great deal of time chatting with his boarding house hostesses but never finding an opportunity to murder them as was no doubt his plan.
And despite the determined efforts of American police, it would be the keen eyes of Canadians that would finally lead to the capture of a vicious killer.
Author Harold Schechter profiles Earle Leonard Nelson in his 1999 historical true crime Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster.
Beginning with his unfortunate beginning, Schechter retraces Earle’s steps through murder sites in California’s Bay area, across the country to crime scenes in New York and Pennsylvania then finally to Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada where he was tried for his crimes.
I love historical true crime so it goes without saying Bestial was easily a five star plus book for me. However, there was more to this book than just the crime story that I loved just as much. For example, Schechter recreates the debate among Canadians about execution of a mental deranged person and how their beliefs on such varied from their most Southern States neighbors. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the mindset of the time.
My only disappointment in this book was that there were no photos, especially since many persons described Earle as a possible foreigner and having excessively large hands. But I was able to look up photos online so it ended up being only a minimal disappointment.
Although I think the price for a new book or Kindle version is extreme compared to others in the genre, Bestial is an absolutely must read, especially for those with an interest in historical crime, in my opinion and well worth every penny in the end.