San Francisco, 1926. The Golden Gate Bridge has yet to be built, the police department is riddled with corrupt cops, and the United States’ first known traveling serial killer, the hulking, knuckle-walking man with the psychotic laugh who came to be known as the Laughing Gorilla, is leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake.
The Laughing Gorilla is the true story of the killing sprees of two men who both went by the nickname of the Laughing Gorilla and the efforts of one of the few honest cops on the force, Captain Charles Dullea, to bring the murderers to justice. It’s a fascinating portrayal of Captain Dullea’s steadfast search for witnesses and clues to track the killers down. Along the way, Dullea helps to expose extortion, corruption, and murder within the police department, and we see how his pursuit of the Laughing Gorilla affects his life forever after.
Robert Graysmith is the well-known author of other excellent true crime books like The Sleeping Lady, UnaBomber: A Desire to Klil, The Bell Tower, and Amerithrax. He’s also the author of Zodiac, Zodiac Unmasked, and AutoFocus: The Murder of Bob Crane, which have been made into major motion pictures by Warner Brothers, Paramount, Phoenix Pictures, and Sony Pictures. I haven’t yet read any of these books, but if they’re as good as The Laughing Gorilla, they’re definitely ones I’d like to add to my reading list. Graysmith is a vibrant author, and The Laughing Gorilla reads almost like a novel - you get caught up in the story and made to feel Dullea’s frustration and exasperation at dead-end leads, his inability to put a stop to the killings sooner, and his anger that he’s unable to bring the killer(s) to justice any sooner.
I was surprised as I read that our country’s history of serial killers goes back as far as it does, and that these murders were as brutal as some of the most infamous ones since. The women, generally landladies the Laughing Gorilla rented rooms from, were strangled, their throats cut with a straight razor. They were often raped afterward, sometimes mutilated and dismembered. The murders bring to my mind both the Edgar Allen Poe tale “The Murders In the Rue Morgue,” which is quoted from at the beginnings of several chapters, and Jack the Ripper’s murders of prostitutes.
One of the murders the Laughing Gorilla commits is practically identical to The Ripper’s last and perhaps most gruesome murder, in that the body of his victim looks like an autopsy has been performed upon it. “Mrs. Meyers,” also known as Bette Coffin, was strangled, sliced open, and one of her breasts was cut off. Curiously, there seems to have been little blood around the victim, hinting that the murder happened elsewhere and the body was then placed on the bed where she was found, in a hotel room she and her supposed “husband” had checked into. The lumbering killer with a laugh similar to the one from the radio series “The Shadow” did it all in thirty minutes before making his escape.
This murder occurred after the man whom Dullea sought as being the original Laughing Gorilla was captured, imprisoned, and executed in Canada. It was a blow to Dullea when he realized that someone else also described by witnesses as gorilla-like and with a strange laugh was slaughtering landladies using almost the exact same modus operandi. The search for the killers, and others whom Dullea encounters, makes for a fascinating read. The Laughing Gorilla is one of the best true crime books I’ve read in a long time and one sure to garner more fans for the talented Robert Graysmith.