“The Lonely Hearts Killer,” 1957-1958

Notes on a killing

Harold Schechter
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

The tabloid tradition of bestowing horror-movie nicknames on serial killers—“The Vampire of Sacramento,” “The Werewolf of Wisteria,” “The Plainfield Ghoul”—reflects the general perception of these psychos as creatures of almost mythic evil. So when one of these supernatural-seeming monsters is finally caught, it can come as a shock to see how blandly ordinary they usually look. “Son of Sam,” who terrorized New Yorkers during the summer of 1976, turned out to be a pudgy postal worker. Dennis Rader, the “BTK Killer,” looked about as menacing as a balding, middle-aged Cub Scout leader (which, in fact, he was). Joel Rifkin, responsible for the dismemberment murders of as many as seventeen prostitutes, had the appearance (and personality) of a stereotypical geek.

The same phenomenon holds true in the case of Harvey Glatman. As one noted criminologist observes, the very name Harvey Glatman sounds like that of the nebbish “who sat next to you in eighth-grade biology class.” He looked the part, too. With his big nose, Dumbo ears, and oversized eyeglasses, he was a dead ringer for Bart Simpson’s dorky pal, Milhouse. Behind that almost comically nerdy veneer, however, lurked one of the more twisted minds in the annals of American serial murder.

The roots of Glatman’s sexual psychopathology are impossible to trace. Born in the Bronx in 1927 to immigrant Jewish parents, he was a prodigy of perversion, indulging in bizarre erotic practices at a shockingly early age. He was no older than four when he began stimulating himself by tying one end of a length of twine around his penis, sticking the other end in a tightly closed dresser drawer, then slowly leaning backwards so that the taut string tugged his member. It was the first manifestation of the rope fetish that would dominate his life and ultimately lead to the terrible deaths of three women.

By the time Harvey was eleven, he was heavily into the perilous activity known as autoerotic asphyxiation: putting his head in a noose, throwing the rope over a rafter, and choking himself while he masturbated with this free hand. When his parents discovered him at this “game,” they consulted a doctor who attributed it to “growing pains.” He assured the Glatmans that their boy would “outgrow it.”

Far from subsiding, Glatman’s perverse compulsions grew worse. After moving to Denver with his parents in 1937, he began breaking into homes while still in high school, coming away from one of these forays with a stolen handgun. Soon he had progressed from thievery to sexual assault. Sneaking into the houses of attractive young women, he would tie them up at gunpoint and fondle them while he masturbated. On the lookout for the adolescent perpetrator—described by one victim as a skinny, jug-eared teen with a “chipmunk face”—police nabbed Glatman. He was promptly bailed out by his ever-doting mother, though not before missing his high school graduation.

One month later, in June 1945, while out on bond, the seventeen-year-old Glatman abducted a Denver woman and subjected her to the usual molestation before driving her home. She immediately informed the police, and before long the teenager was behind bars in Colorado State prison.

Paroled after just eight months of his one-to-five year sentence, Glatman decamped from Denver with his mother and headed back to New York, where they settled in Yonkers. Within a month, Glatman was back on the streets, prowling for victims. In August 1946, brandishing a toy pistol, he accosted a pair of strolling young lovers at midnight, bound the man with a length of rope, and began fondling the woman. Wriggling free of his bonds, the boyfriend lunged at Glatman, who drew a pocket knife, slashed at the man’s shoulders, then fled into the shadows.

Boarding a train that night, headed for Albany, where, a few days later, he accosted a young nurse on her way home from work, stuck his toy pistol in her back, and relieved her of her cash. When he attempted to bind her hands—with the apparent intention of molesting her—she screamed, which sent him running. The very next night, still wielding his cap gun, he mugged a pair of middle-aged women, who immediately notified the police. On the lookout for the “Phantom Bandit” (as the newspapers dubbed him), the cops spotted Glatman just two days later as he followed a potential victim along a darkened street. Inside his pockets they found his toy pistol, a pocketknife, and a length of rope. Two months later, Glatman, just nineteen years old, found himself back in prison, this time with a sentence of five to ten years.

During his incarceration in Sing Sing, Glatman was evaluated by a prison psychiatrist who diagnosed him as a “psychopathic personality–schizophrenic type” with “sexually perverted impulses as the basis for his criminality.” Despite this grim assessment, Glatman won parole after less than three years. Released into parental custody, he returned to Denver, moved in with his mother, and spent the next five-and-a-half years working at various odd jobs and checking in with his parole officer. Finally, in early 1957, having earned his full liberty, he moved to Los Angeles, where his psychopathic cravings—dormant for more than a half-decade—burst into full, deadly bloom.

Finding work as a TV repairman, Glatman began to frequent the seedy camera clubs, where sex-starved creeps could shoot “art pictures” of naked young models. Many of these women were aspiring starlets, eking out a living any way they could. They also accepted jobs on the side. Glatman, using the pseudonym “Johnny Glenn,” approached a baby-faced nineteen-year-old named Judy Dull. He explained that he worked as a freelance photographer for a true detective magazine and asked if she would be interested in posing for him. The pay was $20 an hour.

Judy Dull agreed.

Taking her to his apartment, Glatman explained that she would have to be bound and gagged and look convincingly frightened, as though she were about to be raped. Whatever apprehensions Judy Dull might have had, they were allayed by the harmless appearance of the goofy-looking Glatman. Trussed up and placed in an armchair, the young woman threw herself into her part—assuming a terrified expression and twisting in her seat—while Glatman snapped away with his Rolleiflex camera. All at once, the game turned terribly real. Pulling out a gun—a real one this time—he undid her bonds and forced her to strip, promising (as he later confessed to police) that he “wouldn’t hurt her if she did as she was told.” Then, saying that he intended to “have some fun with her,” he raped her repeatedly. By the time he was finished, night had fallen. Announcing that he intended to take her “a long way out in the sticks,” give her bus fare back to the city, and release her, he ushered her to his car. He then drove her out to the desert, strangled her with a length of sash cord, took some photographs of her corpse, and left her there for the buzzards and coyotes.

Seven months later, in March 1958, Glatman—this time passing himself off as a plumber named “George Williams”—arranged a date with thirty-year-old divorcee, Shirley Ann Bridgeford, whose name he had gotten through a Hollywood “lonely hearts club.” After driving her to a remote spot off the highway, he produced his .32 Browning automatic and raped her twice in the backseat. He then drove her out into the desert, forced her to lie facedown on a blanket, hog-tied her, took a half-dozen photos of the terrified woman, and garroted her to death.

Twenty-four-year-old Rose Mercado was the third woman to die at Glatman’s hands. In July, 1958, shortly after placing a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times seeking work as a model, she was visited by a funny-looking photographer who gave his name as Frank Wilson. After checking out her portfolio and agreeing on a price, “Wilson” left, saying he would be in touch soon. The following night, he sneaked into her apartment, raped her at gunpoint, then drove her out the desert, where—like the two previous victims of Glatman’s homicidal sadism—she was bound, photographed, strangled, and left for carrion.

A few months later, in the last week of October, a state patrolman cruising the Santa Ana freeway happened upon a man and a woman struggling beside a car parked on the shoulder. Stopping to investigate, the officer found Glatman grappling with a twenty-eight-year-old model named Lorraine Vigil, who had managed to wrestle the killer’s gun away from him as he was attempting to abduct her.

In custody, Glatman—a.k.a. “The Lonely Hearts Killer” and “The Glamour Girl Slayer,” as the tabloids variously dubbed him—confessed to everything. Searching his apartment, police discovered a toolbox containing his horrifying photo collection. In some of the pictures, the women were fully clothed. In others, they were partly or completely nude. Bound and gagged, they wore terrified expressions. “The torment those women suffered must have been horrible,” Judge John A. Hewicker said at the climax of Glatman’s three-day trial in December. “Some crimes are so revolting that there is only one penalty that can be imposed—and that is the death penalty.” Condemned to die in San Quentin’s gas chamber, Glatman was philosophical about his fate. “It’s better this way,” he remarked, a sentiment few people would have argued with. His execution took place on the morning of September 19, 1959.

More than twenty years before the phrase “serial murder” entered the American lexicon, Glatman—a cunning sociopath driven by sexual sadism to commit repeated acts of ritualized homicide—epitomized the essence of the type. In the words of one eminent historic of crime, “To understand Harvey Glatman is to understand the basic psychology of the serial killer.”

Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. He is also the author of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.
Originally published:
March 18, 2019


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