Friday Lore Post: The Nathaniel Harkness Murders of 1959-64

In the summer of 1959, a series of brutal murders took place over a two-week span. With no apparent rhyme or reason, twenty-seven people were either stabbed or bludgeoned to death, mostly in their homes but a few of them in public locations, including two young children who were murdered in a park. There was no obvious connection between the victims or the crimes, and police at the time were baffled as to what the killer’s motive could be, and declared they were searching for a madman.

The madman they found was one Nathaniel Harkness, a nineteen-year-old seminary student who, until the time when he started murdering people, had never so much as littered. His family and friends described Harkness as a model citizen, concerned to a perhaps excessive degree with following rules and doing things in a way he deemed correct. The worst he had ever been accused of being was a killjoy. Harkness was, the police were told, an all-around good person, and his friends and family could not fathom what could have driven him to hurt anyone.

But the evidence against Harkness was irrefutable—the shoeprints left in blood at several of the crime scenes matched his, a sledgehammer and hunting knife with and hair on them were found in his car, blood was found on most of his clothing, and most damningly, he was caught in the act of committing the twenty-seventh murder, that of one Gladys Heathrow. Her husband Vernon pushed Harkness out of their second-storey bedroom window, knocking him unconscious and allowing time for Vernon Heathrow to call the police and have Harkness arrested.

In custody, Harkness was calm, lucid, polite, respectful and cooperated fully with the police. He confessed to all twenty-seven murders when confronted, and when asked why he’d done it, explained very calmly and rationally that the world was impure, flawed, and hated by God, for it had been corrupted at the beginning by Satan, and therefore needed to be destroyed, one person at a time if need be. Police who interviewed Harkness later reported that the calm, clear conviction with which he explained all of this to them, along with his unflinching, firm belief that the police would not only free him to continue his work but would indeed help him with it, was so unnerving that the interviewing officers needed to take several breaks. Harkness was said to be not particularly charismatic, but was convincing and hard not to agree with.

A search of Harkness’s room at the seminary revealed a series of journal entries from the past few years detailing Harkness’s growing conviction that the world was in need of purification. Harkness clearly believed that no part of God’s creation could be redeemed, and that God Himself could not end the world because the Adversary had trapped him in it, and therefore it was up to humans to end the world for God to free Him. Harkness’s journals were not the frantic scrawlings of a lunatic, but were measured, careful, and rationally laid out—a series of theological arguments that led to inevitable conclusions. Harkness’s victims were chosen entirely at random. He had no plan except to destroy any person he thought was impure, which was everyone.

Harkness was charged with twenty-seven counts of murder in the first degree, two counts of possession of a deadly weapon and one count of attempted murder. Harkness was deemed criminally insane and was sent to an asylum, where he ended up murdering six more people, including two nurses, over the next eighteen months. It was at this time that the police and the DA’s office managed to convince a judge to sentence Harkness to the death penalty.

As he was being moved to a maximum-security prison to sit on death row, Harkness escaped his jailers and went missing on December 30th, 1960.

Despite public fears, there were no further murders after Harkness’s escape. Police records and crime statistics from this period do note a higher than average number of missing persons, most of whom were never found, and it is speculated that these people were killed by Harkness while on the run. Despite police assurances that Harkness was likely no longer in the area, he was eventually found by chance just near the city limits, and a massive manhunt was called.

For the next three days, many public buildings in the city were bombed, and the entire city was placed on lockdown as an armed and dangerous criminal was on the loose and represented an imminent danger to public safety. On March 14th, 1964, Harkness was caught in the act of planting a large explosive device under a public library, and was shot dead by police when he tried to detonate the explosive.

Unfortunately, Harkness had kept no convenient journals during this period of time, so his state of mind is unknown. A small book found on his body contained a map of the city and a series of esoteric diagrams and nothing else. Under the abandoned warehouse where he had been spotted, the police found a shelter with some more occult diagrams and indecipherable writings. Several experts speculated that Harkness had become a Satanist while on the run. The police also believed, but never shared publicly, that Harkness had several other underground shelters, between which he’d been moving to avoid detection, but none were ever found. The shelter the police found also held a large four-pronged metal object of uncertain use, which is only of note because it later went missing from the evidence file and has not been seen since.

With Harkness dead, his actions were officially deemed those of a madman and the city breathed a sigh of relief to know that he was no longer a threat to anyone. This harrowing historical moment is memorialized by an art installation, a granite statue of a large right hand with the names of Harkness’s victims carved into the palm. The statue sits in the plaza outside city hall to this day, lest the city ever forget its darkest period.

From “A Tourist’s Guide to Local History,” by Alberto Caplin, published by Sphenisciforme Press, 2019.

6 thoughts on “Friday Lore Post: The Nathaniel Harkness Murders of 1959-64

  1. So that’s where Modern!Nathen’s been.

    (Also, seriously, “experts”? A Satanist? After he’d laid out in detail that he was the polar opposite? Not a very bright bunch, were you? Then again, you were employed by the police, which if the past couple of weeks has taught me anything is a black mark against your credibility…)

    I assume that Cal will, on one of his urban explorations, stumble across one or more of the old safehouses and awaken his Nathen persona.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, that’s where he’s been!

      Let’s not forget that in addition to working for the police and being inherently…not credible as a result, these were also psychologists and profilers in the ’60s, who had a very limited repertoire of diagnoses for (white) criminals, haha.

      Cal is definitely going to run into some of Nathen’s old haunts–and indeed already has, if you read his recent Modern chapters carefully. 🙂 So he might be in for a past life awakening of some kind in the next little while, we’ll see. 😀


  2. Interesting… Did fantasy Nathan share similar beliefs to his modern AU counterpart? Could be a clue to whatever it is he’s trying to accomplish with his killings in either world…


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