My First Life Lesson

It was early 1978 when Simon Peter Nelson brutally murdered his six children with a hunting knife and a rubber mallet. He beat each of his progeny (aged 12-3) in their sleep before stabbing them to death. (Or, at least the ones who didn’t wake up from the ruckus caused by their siblings’ grisly demise. Nelson claims that they were all asleep when he began their individual attacks, but I just can’t fathom the possibility.)

The intended victim was Nelson’s wife Ann, whose attorney had called Peter that day to notify him that she was filing for divorce. In his rage over the breakup, he decided the best way to get her back was by killing their kids and their dog Pretzel who got the least of it, dying from a single slash to the throat.

Reports detailed Nelson said he “snapped” just like the people on that show on Oxygen. This particular snap lasted long enough for him to violently beat and stab his 6 children in multiple bedrooms of their Rockford, Illinois family home along with the Schnauzer. (My guess is that Charlie the cat, being a cat, probably peaced the fuck out when he saw what was going down, which is why he remained the only survivor in the house.)

After the slaughter, Nelson’s snap continued for an additional 2-hour drive across state lines to the Ramada Inn in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Ann was staying. After hotel security were notified of a disturbance, they contacted the Milwaukee police who found Peter beating Ann in her bathroom.

After he was apprehended, Ann told the cops that Peter said he killed their kids. A phone call to Rockford PD and a subsequent break in at the Nelson house quickly confirmed his claim, and his domestic abuse allegations were soon joined by 6 charges of murder.

Nelson Family PhotoThe case got national media coverage for weeks and like a ton of other children at the time, I was an innocent bystander who got caught in the emotional crossfire of this hideous event. Because until I saw a report on the Nelson story on television, the concept of a parent killing his child wasn’t anywhere on my radar. Once it was, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was life like for those kids? What was it like waking up to your parent beating and stabbing you to death? Did any of them have an inclination or any warning of what might go down after they went to bed that night?

When I crawled into my own bed after seeing the report, I worried in my  sheets for what felt like hours before I finally got the nerve to get up and ask Mom about my newfound fears.

“Susan, what are you doing out of bed? You should be asleep by now.”

“I’m scared to…,” I started.

“What are you scared of?” she asked.

I paused for another second, took a deep breath and  just blurted it out. “How do I know you’re not the kind of mommy who’s going to kill me while I’m asleep?”

She gave me an exasperated look and replied, “Well, Susan. How am I supposed to know you’re the not the kind of daughter who’s going to kill me while I’m asleep?”

When Mom responded to my biggest fear by questioning my own intentions, I got my first lesson in knowing there are no guarantees in life. And Mom apparently got her first inkling that I might kill her. So, instead of pressing the issue, I just went back to bed.

I was 7 and a half at the time and from that point on, the trust mom and I had in each other was a thinly veiled hope for the best.

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About Susan

Susan Kent is a small town Georgia girl living in Brooklyn, NY, and working on those deep rooted issues from her southern upbringing. She's a freelance writer and storyteller and co-host of Tell It: Brooklyn, a storytelling show for grownups. Susan frequently performs around NYC at shows like The Moth StorySLAM, Yum's the Word, and Mara Wilson's "What Are You Afraid Of?" Her stories have aired on a variety of podcasts and radio shows including, The Moth Radio Hour, Kevin Allison's Risk! podcast, Dingmantics, You Can't Make That Up and many others. If you want to get more intimate with Susan & her thoughts, feel free to follow her on Twitter @TheSusanKent. (Not to be confused with the Canadian actress of the same name, which happens more than you would believe.)

23 thoughts on “My First Life Lesson

  1. “… a thinly veiled hope for the best.” – absolutely brilliant, Susan! Your writing is really becoming phenomenal. This post, as is, is a tremendous beginning for your novel. I would buy the book – and be caught from that line above.
    Love you! Aimee 🙂

  2. Congrats on the blog piece, and for realizing it’s what I call a seed pearl for memoir. If you can dig deep enough to find those “pearls” that define you, you can string them together and wear the necklace for the world to read. Good luck @writerteresa

  3. Chilling story – I do not recall it. Fantastic writing like the others I have read. Keep on posting!

  4. Thanks Joni!

    Nelson’s still in prison for the crime and although he comes up for parole from time to time, my guess is that he’ll probably die behind bars.

  5. I found your blog while searching the case. Very nice piece!

    I live a couple of blocks from the house where this happened. It’s been vacant for a while now – people never seem to stay. Something always chases them out. 🙁 I have never known many details of the case… just run or walk by the house day in and day out and meet it’s vacant stare. A neighbor said it’s high time it was torn down and a garden or something put in place. I believe I agree.

  6. Hey Meredith,

    Thanks for reading & writing. When I first started this piece, I thought I may have made my memories up. Once I began the research, I realized that what I’d done was block a lot of the horrific details (assuming I most likely heard them back then).

    My guess on what’s running people out of that house is an enormous aura of sadness and pain that certainly permeates the place … and the neighborhood where I’m sure most people are aware of the house’s sad, scary history.

    I think the garden idea is brilliant. It could be a beautiful memorial of sorts, a safe haven for people in the community, and a way to ease some of the pain and start anew. It could actually be an amazing project for a Domestic Violence Prevention group. Just a thought.


  7. Ann was my skating coach, and such a big role model at the time. I’ve wondered for decades what happened to her after she left Rockford after the trial. She was a wonderful person, and nobody that I ever encountered ever said they knew of anything going on that would warrant panic. I knew the oldest girl, Jennifer, just a bit- since she skated at the rink Ann taught at. She was a quiet, sweet kid, with a promising future in ice dance. After her death, I was pursued by Ann to begin more intensive training for ice dance. Those murders have never left me. I was 14 at the time, and I also had never heard of a parent killing their kids. Ann was not the original target- she had gone to Milwaukee for the weekend, and Simon Peter was at home with the kids…. she never would have left them if there was any indication he could do what he did. He went to find her in Milwaukee (and did), and told her that he’d killed the kids in such a way that she’d never work again- it was spite. He wanted her to live with the pain of what he did. It’s still a big thing around here to sign parole protest letters when they come up.

    • Hey JillinoisRN (Jill?),

      I just can’t imagine being that close to what happened, much less actually being Ann and having to live through losing her kids – and the never ending reminders of what happened by being thrust into the memories through being involved with repeated parole hearings. A cousin of mine was murdered when I was little, and every few years my mom would spend weeks crafting a letter to appeal to the parole board to keep her killer in jail. It was emotionally exhausting and I think the energy Mom spent fighting to keep that main incarcerated depleted her ability to move on and heal herself.

      Thanks for sharing your story & for reading mine.


  8. I’ve been in that house and it’s very depressing. Even though it’s been almost 40 years ago, you can almost feel it. That house is like a time capsule as nothing other than the kitchen has been changed since the murders.

    • Yeah Brent,

      I can’t imagine that the energy of what happened with the Nelson family will ever leave that space. I’m sure walking in knowing the story would be pretty overwhelming.

      Thanks for sharing.


      • For sure. I can’t believe it’s still standing. After being there, I felt like I had to go visit the children’s grave sites and let them know there are people who still care and haven’t forgotten them. It’s pretty much been a life changing experience just going in there and seeing exactly where it all took place. Nothing in that house has changed since this happened and it’s like a time capsule back to a very ugly time.

  9. Jennifer was my best friend. Her mom was my coach. We would have barbecues at our house with the whole family. I don’t now why I’m posting this. I’m almost 50. I miss her and was thinking about her.. I wanted to see simon before i died to ask him why.

    • Oh, Tammy. I’m so sorry that’s something you’ve been carrying all these years. It must be so hard still. I wonder if Simon would even have an answer. And even if he did, I can’t imagine it would be anything that could ease your pain or explain why in a way that made any sense. I hope you’ve been able to find some peace.

  10. I don’t think we will ever know why Simon Peter Nelson murdered his children as he still claims to this day that he does not remember committing the act. It was like an out of body experience he told one parole board member. He will be up for parole in 2017 and the hearing with be around May. The Rockford Register Star posts a petition to sign to keep him in prison. Years ago when he was married to another woman, he came close to being paroled. I feel that he took bright futures away from his children, therefore, he should stay in jail. In addition, he took the innocence of a neighborhood and for the first time made children question their parents. I will never forget. Those of us who lived in the neighborhood and knew the kids are their voices and until he his time is up, I will continue to speak up for them.

    • Hi Cami,

      I can’t fathom what it must be like to carry the memories of that day with you for so long. Personally, I’m torn on life sentences, even in cases of extreme violence like this one.

      But maybe that’s from the fact that I had a cousin who was murdered and from the time her killer was convicted, my mother poured so much energy into writing letters to the parole board, fighting to keep him in jail for the rest of his life. The anger ate at her in a way that broke her down and damaged her own life more than his.

      Though, at the same time, I get where she was coming from.

      It’s complicated.

  11. I lived a block away from the Nelson house and was only 7 when I heard this horrifying news. I went to school with the middle son, Andy, and played with the neighbors kid. It destroyed my innocence and my trust in my parents and adults in general, and the photo’s of the house are haunting. I live 1000 miles from Rockford now but that day and event will haunt me forever. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my memories, although I wish this one had remained buried in my past….God bless the souls of those kids and their Mother, Ann…

    • Jeff,

      I really can’t imagine how impactful this must have been on you as a kid who lived near and went to school with the Nelson children. I was a thousand miles away and it made an indelible impression on my life.

      Those kids are definitely remembered.


  12. Susan,
    Simon “Pete” Nelson is my father. I am his oldest son from his first marriage to Cathy (Nelson) Liggins. While I am blessed in that he divorced my mother before remarrying and mudering my half brothers and sisters, my life and that of my mother and sisters was a living hell. It is only through much therapy and faith that I have been able to live my life. I pray my father is never released from prison.

    • Wow, Tony.

      I never expected this post to reach you, and honestly, hearing from you shook me a little, which is why it took me a bit to respond. I obviously can’t comprehend what you and your family have been through – nor can I imagine what it must have been like to find my blog post talking about how your family tragedy affected my life.

      What I do want to say is that I’m so very sorry for all the trauma you experienced, and the pain you continue to feel. I’m thankful you reached out, and I hope your therapy and faith continue to keep you going.

      Much light and peace to you.

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