San Francisco

San Francisco's most notorious murderers—and books to read about them

Halloween may be in the rear-view mirror, but there's no time like the present to revisit some of San Francisco's true history of the depraved and macabre.

The San Francisco area has its share of blood-chilling serial murderers, from the still-unidentified Doodler, who lured multiple male victims from Castro bars in the mid-1970s and stabbed them to death in San Francisco parks, to the Trailside Killer, who murdered women hiking or jogging alone in Lands End and on Mt. Tam in the late '70s.

Read on for five books about San Francisco's dangerous past, from lone killers to cult leaders. (Four of the five are also available as audiobooks, for the true-crime podcast addicts out there.) Got other reading recommendations? Let us know in the comments.

Disclosure: While this post is not sponsored, Hoodline may receive compensation from affiliate links used herein.

Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster 

by Harold Schechter

Believed to be among America's first serial killers, Earle Leonard Nelson began his criminal career in San Francisco, where he was born in 1897 to parents who soon died of syphilis. Raised by his devoutly religious grandmother, he survived a streetcar collision and six-day coma, and spent time in both San Quentin State Prison and mental hospitals.

In 1926, Leonard killed two San Francisco landladies in the span of two weeks, embarking on a killing spree that would take him as far as Manitoba, Canada, and earn him the nickname "the Gorilla Killer."

Get Bestial here >>


by Robert Graysmith

Many San Franciscans are familiar with the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who terrorized the city in the late 1960s and early '70s. But perhaps no one knows more about the still-unsolved case than Robert Graysmith, a reporter cartoonist working at the San Francisco Chronicle during the Zodiac Killer's reign.

Like many amateur investigators, Graysmith's fascination with the unsolved mystery leads him to detail clues, review evidence, and point towards at least one credible suspect. His book served as the basis for David Fincher's 2007 film of the same name, which reignited interest in the case. (For an alternative angle, there's also Gary Stewart's 2014 bestseller The Most Dangerous Animal of All, in which he presents the case that his birth father is the killer.)

Get Zodiac here >>

The Family

by Ed Sanders

Before committing the horrific murders that would make him infamous, Charles Manson spent much of 1967 in the Haight, recruiting (mostly female) followers and trying to get his career as a musician off the ground.

The group eventually made its way to Spahn Ranch, outside Los Angeles, which served as a basecamp for increasingly nefarious goings-on. It all culminated in a bloody and seemingly senseless 1969 killing spree that captivated the nation. In his book, author Sanders presents a detailed and meticulously researched view into Manson's machinations and the inside story on his so-called "family."

Get The Family here >>

The Zebra Murders: A Season of Killing, Racial Madness and Civil Rights

by Prentice Earl Sanders and Ben Cohen

In October 1973, a couple walking in Telegraph Hill was abducted and hacked with machetes, kicking off six months of terror in San Francisco. The perpetrators, a group of African-American men who dubbed themselves the "Death Angels," targeted white victims in a string of racially motivated killings that tallied at least 15 murders, with some authorities estimating there may have been as many as 73 victims. 

In The Zebra Murders, African-American homicide detective Prentice Earl Sanders, who was assigned to the case in the midst of a trailblazing racial discrimination suit against the SFPD, recounts his experiences working to catch the killers, while simultaneously fighting racism within the force.

(For more—especially if you're wondering 'What the heck was with the '70s anyway?'—there's David Talbot's excellent Season of the Witch, which includes the Zebra killings in its recounting of San Francisco's cultural history from the late '60s to the early '80s.)

Get The Zebra Murders here >>

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

by Jeff Guinn

Billed as "the comprehensive, authoritative, and tragic story of preacher Jim Jones," this account traces Jones' beginnings as an Indianapolis minister and growing influence as the cultish leader of San Francisco's infamous Peoples Temple, where he espoused communist ideology, hobnobbed with local politicians, and gathered followers as the '70s wore on.

Facing growing scrutiny, Jones moved several hundred members of his group to a settlement in Guyana he dubbed "Jonestown," kicking off a chain of events which would end in the cyanide-induced mass murder/suicide of over 900 people—one-third of them children—as well as the shooting of several San Francisco-based reporters and politicians engaged in a fact-finding mission. 

Get The Road to Jonestown here >>

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