Table of Contents
Robert Graysmith’s Published True Crime Books:
THE SLEEPING LADY
AUTOFOCUS (THE MURDER OF BOB CRANE)
UNABOMBER: A DESIRE TO KILL
Zodiac, Zodiac Unmasked,
have been made into
major motion pictures by Warner Brothers, Paramount,
Phoenix Pictures, and Sony Pictures.
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2009 Robert Graysmith.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The laughing gorilla : a true story of police corruption and murder / Robert Graysmith. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-14518-0
1. Nelson, Earle Leonard. 2. Gordon, Harry. 3. Murderers--United States--Biography.
4. Murder--United States. 5. Dullea, Charles W., 1889-1966. 6. Police chiefs--California-- San Francisco I. Title
The Laughing Gorilla
haunted the last honest cop in San Francisco. Captain of Police Inspectors Charles Dullea felt there was nothing worse than a cop killer. Nothing worse, he thought, unless it was a dirty cop or a killer cop. In the early 1930s he encountered all three—and soon after something worse lumbered out of his darkest nightmare—laughing.
—1930s San Francisco. The city’s Ferry Building, Moorish Clock Tower, and docks are a fog-shrouded region of bloody labor riots. Depression times, bad times—poverty, soup lines, and the most corrupt police department in America. The city hall, the DA, and the cops run the town as though they own it, and they do.
—A long-armed Gorilla Man who strangles with his huge hands and dissects his victims in autopsies with a straight razor. He is the nation’s first traveling serial killer.
—Captain Dullea, an ex-Marine, encounters a new kind of man and new kind of crime—motiveless sequential murder, “the greatest reign of terror ever inflicted on the nation’s women.”
is the mystery he cannot solve.
is the answer he never suspected.
—Police Chief William J. Quinn, brutal, anti-labor chief who shotguns and gases striking longshoremen as the docks go up in flames. His cops have individual bank accounts of up to $830,000. Quinn cannot be shaken from his office. Dullea intends to make certain he is.
The Prime Suspect
—Slipton Fell, movie-star handsome and instantly attractive to women, especially older ones. The “Laughing Killer of Woodside Glens” lives within a half block of the Bay Hotel where “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” come to life and is identified by the staff as the killer. But is he the one Dullea’s seeking? In Cleveland, Eliot Ness pursues another Gorilla Man who might also be Dullea’s man.
To Brad Fischer and James Vanderbilt
As the sailor looked in, the gigantic animal had seized Madame L’Espanaye by the hair and was flourishing the razor about her face, in imitation of the motions of a barber.
—E. A. POE, “THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE”
you Mrs. Clara Newman?” the whispered voice asked through a slit that served as a mouth. “Are you the lady who advertised a third-floor room for rent?” The stranger’s watery blue eyes fastened on Clara Newman’s face, then on the expensive pearls around her neck, and finally on her frail throat. The Gorilla Man laughed, a mirthless laugh at the bottom of a dusky staircase.
The olive-complected stranger seemed nice enough, except for his vaguely simian features—broad nose, a wet mouth too long for his face, and small low-set ears. Beneath his short, straw-colored hair Clara saw a Y-shaped wound, wet as his lips, which was not quite healed. For a short man, five feet, seven or eight, he had a powerful build—as muscular as the gorillas he resembled—wide shoulders, broad chest, long arms, and short legs.
His huge hands were corded with muscle. Even in the dim light Clara could see they were covered with light-colored tufts of hair. The joints of his fingers were swollen, the balls of his thumbs extraordinarily broad and square, and the joints in the long flexors of his thumbs much longer than average. The snapping and catching of his thumb, a “gamekeeper’s thumb,” were due to a thickening of the sheath and tendon at the metacarpal head. The repeated action of twisting the heads off small animals forces the thumb into radial deviation at the joint. His nails, a half inch long or more, curved sharply inward. Even as a child his hands had been large and continuously in motion, except when clasped rigidly in prayer. As an adult he sometimes walked on them—easing forward onto his knuckles, straightening his legs and ambling forward with uncanny ease. He suffered from violent migraines that troubled him all his life. At times, the pain was so overwhelming he could not walk except on his hands.
The sanctimonious young man in the vestibule of Clara Newman’s rooming house hoisted the heavy Bible under his arm as if it weighed nothing. By God, he loved that Bible! The worn, well-thumbed volume with rich leather covers and embossed gold inscriptions had been handed down from his widowed grandmother to his aunt Lillian, a rabid Pentecostal Bible-thumper. From Lillian’s saintly, hated hands it had come down to him. But the Gorilla Man’s own restless hands had worn away the gold leaf, scuffed the gold-sided pages, blackened the bound-in cord marker, and smeared the octavo pages where he’d double-lined, even triple-lined in ink his most cherished verses. “My aunt told me I would be a minister some day,” he told Clara Newman.
While it touched her heart to hear that he loved God, she thought it would be exceedingly odd to see that long, simian mouth recite Scripture.
The Gorilla Man wore a shabby, dark gray suit; a white shirt; a wide, yellow tie with a hand-painted palm tree; and a tan Stetson too large for him. He routinely returned home in someone else’s clothes. He had just been shaved and barbered, though his overhanging brows remained un-trimmed. Because he needed only a thick ridge of bone above his eyes to make him perfectly apelike, those heavy brows fulfilled that function. Beneath their canopy his deep-set eyes shimmered like well water. They darkened to indigo as Clara studied them, failing to notice their animal cunning. Turning, she led him to the second floor. On the third-floor landing the Gorilla Man’s long fingers spread wide. He flexed them—
of Police Inspectors Charles W. Dullea awoke with a start, drenched with sweat and shaking. Greenish yellow light was streaming through his bedroom curtains. After a rainy night and overcast dawn, high-stepped banks of clouds to the east had parted to permit an unearthly illumination to drench San Francisco. Dullea wiped his brow as he sat up. He had been dreaming of the Gorilla Man again.
His hands were trembling as he shaved, drawing the blade of the old straight razor from his marine days across the line of his jaw. He shook the lather into the sink and applied astringent alum to a shaving cut. Dullea had been the responding officer in the Gorilla Man investigation, an unparalleled case with an unparalleled creature and a death toll akin to a war or natural disaster. A detective lieutenant then, he never forgot standing on the second-floor landing of Clara Newman’s boardinghouse unable to lift a foot farther into the refurbished attic where the killer had left her nude, violated body. Dullea had actually experienced horripilation—gooseflesh that made his hair rise .
At first the local papers called Clara’s killer “the Dark Strangler,” but his great strength and husky apelike build soon earned him another sobriquet, “the Gorilla Murderer,” then, because it looked better on the banner, “the Gorilla Man.” The press bestowed no nicknames on Captain Charles Dullea. They knew him simply as “Charlie” as did a thousand in the SFPD and many more thousands of citizens throughout the Bay Area. He had an affable face, a face you’d welcome at a tavern. His bushy black hair was cut short, and though he’d make attempts at parting it, the wind always defeated his efforts. His lips were thin as razor blades, his eyes cool and lazy as the Bay and as unreadable. Like the Bay, he was filled with deep and unexpected currents. Well proportioned, a solid 205 pounds spread evenly over a trim six-foot, one-inch frame, the dignified detective was seemingly as wide shouldered as the city’s Ferry Building and as tall as its Moorish Clock Tower. His movements were economical, measured, and self-confident, those of a first-rate athlete and ex-soldier. But once roused to action, Dullea was quick thinking and quick acting, filled with more passion than anyone would ever expect. Unfortunately, he was an honest cop on the most corrupt police force in the nation. He just didn’t know it was dirty yet.
Dullea dressed in a freshly ironed shirt, dark vest, and six-button double-breasted suit. His throat was tight. Methodically, he knotted his red-striped tie and tucked the twin peaks of a folded white handkerchief into his breast pocket. A touch of the farm boy clung to him. His suits never really seemed to fit, and his trousers were always a bit too short. His pointed black shoes, laced to the ankle, looked uncomfortable and were.